Has Ireland’s youth forgotten the lessons of the Troubles? I recently chaired a debate that posed this question to a group of young Irish people. The motion elicited impassioned arguments from both sides. But the question isn’t really whether it is Ireland’s young people who risk forgetting the lessons of the Troubles; the question is whether the population at large is in danger of doing so.
In many ways it can be argued that young people today are living the lessons of the Troubles. Evidence demonstrates that they are less interested in the divisions of the past and more concerned with the issues that directly affect their daily lives: education, mental health, employment and housing.
In Northern Ireland young people are increasingly rejecting outdated and binary political labels, while youth demographics in the Republic have been key drivers in effecting far-reaching social changes. An island-wide survey from the Northern Ireland Youth Forum in 2021 indicated that the next generation were comfortable not only with their own identity but with the identities of others, with 96 per cent of respondents stating they were accepting of the region’s plurality of identities and cultures.
However, for all the consideration given to the plurality of identities within the Republic of Ireland, indifference and a lack of understanding pertaining to Northern Ireland’s past, and the landscape of its peace process continue to permeate. Curriculum shortcomings play no small role in the “othering” of the North. The long-term impact of partition, the ensuing violence in Northern Ireland, and the Belfast Agreement have shaped and influenced not only the people in the North but people across the island. Yet, the history of the North and the Belfast Agreement are watered down to a handful of pages at Junior Cert level, by which point many young people in the Republic will have already developed views and presumptions about Northern Ireland.
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This has contributed to a climate of disconnect between the North and the South, leading some to perceive the pursuit of sustaining peace, unifying people and other such ideals to be a wholly Northern affair, rather than an all-island responsibility. In a recent Sunday Times/Behaviour and Attitudes poll, most 18-24-year-olds in the Republic stated that they do not understand the Troubles, with one in four adding that they don’t know if they support the Belfast Agreement.
For young people to learn lessons from the Troubles and to see their role in maintaining a lasting peace, it must be embedded into the education system. The full text of the agreement, complete with modules on how it has been implemented (or in many cases, left unimplemented) could be added into the curriculum for all students, not just those taking politically focused courses.
There is much to be learned from the past, the reverberations of which continue to be felt in the hearts and minds of people across the island. There is no escaping the painful history that divided Ireland and its people. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons we can learn from the Troubles is the inherent danger and risk that comes from allowing our neighbours to become “othered”. When we allow ourselves to see each other as “them” and “us”, we not only dehumanise those we haven’t taken the time to understand; we dehumanise ourselves.
Polling and research from the ARINS project show deep North-South divisions as to what a new, unified Ireland would look like. There is a clear aversion to the prospect of changing the Irish flag and national anthem, both relatively young national symbols. Voters in the Republic are less likely to vote for a united Ireland if it necessitates these alterations, whereas voters in Northern Ireland are more likely to vote yes if these changes are on the table. Despite their liberal leanings, young people in the Republic are just as averse to the prospect of changing national symbols as their elders.
Studies show that four in 10 East Germans feel like second-class citizens, with issues ranging from wages to childcare, trust in political leaders and state institutions, and the importance of an East or West identity
Understanding why changes may be necessary stems from understanding how peace in Northern Ireland was delivered. It was only through respect for difference, equality and agreement that 30 years of armed conflict was ended. These principles have been fostered in and across communities in Northern Ireland for 25 years; It is perhaps unsurprising, given this context, that making room for difference in a united Ireland would encourage more Northerners to vote yes. When one has lived their life in a contested geopolitical state where national symbols are weaponised into territory markers, one can more easily grasp why a new Ireland deserves new national symbols.
German reunification is often cited as an excellent case study on how quickly movements focused on unifying two territories can move, but German reunification also serves as a warning. There was no new third state created, but rather the West subsumed the East. The result is such that 30 years later, people in Germany remain deeply divided. Studies show that four in 10 East Germans feel like second-class citizens, with issues ranging from wages to childcare, trust in political leaders and state institutions, and the importance of an East or West identity. While Germany may be a unified state, Germans are not a unified people. Is this what we want for Ireland?
Instead of seeing changes to the Irish State as concessions, we should see them as opportunities – opportunities to create a new social fabric, new institutions, and new symbols to represent the diversity of the people of this island. This isn’t about giving something up; it’s about creating something new together.