Irish Council of Churches. Irish Inter-Church Meeting

Twenty years into the future: The voice of young people living in Northern Ireland / the North of Ireland

Dr Cathy Bollaert






Peace–building scholarship suggests that in societies transitioning from war to peace there is a need to balance redressing past wrongs with the need to envision a shared future (Lederach, 1998) and construct a shared understanding of the common good (Jaede, 2017). 

To this end, Youth Link is developing and piloting an education programme entitled ‘Remembering the Past; Shaping the Future’ aimed at addressing sectarianism and building an inclusive society and future based on the common good. In the first session, students are invited to participate in an envisioning exercise in which they present “newspapers” depicting the kind of society they would like in 20 years. The envisioning sessions were piloted with 198 participants in post–primary schools and youth groups across Northern Ireland. These were analysed using thematic analysis, the results of which are outlined below:

1. Equality: 

The desire for a more equal society was one of the most dominant themes to emerge from the posters. This was largely defined in terms of the gender pay gap and wanting to see it reduced (both within the working world and within the sporting sector); the legalisation of same–sex marriage (although there were a small percentage of people who disagreed with their peers who supported this); and the desire to see greater racial diversity and inclusion. Awareness around poverty and wanting to see it addressed was also strongly expressed. Interestingly, this related more to concerns such as homelessness rather than directly talking about issues relating to class and classism.


2. Safety and security: 

Concerns around safety and security were also frequently expressed. This included concerns around crime and violence and the influence of paramilitary groups. Some groups also identified the need for better policing within their communities. 

3. International peace and cooperation: 

Related to the theme of safety and security was the desire for more international peace and cooperation. This was expressed largely within the context of current conflicts in the Middle East. Together with their awareness of the risk that that terrorism poses suggests young people have quite a strong global perspective and sense of identification. 

4. Economic well–being: 

The need for a stronger economy and the future well–being of young people also emerged as a dominant theme in the posters. This included the need for more jobs and concerns about future employment options. These concerns could be exacerbated by the uncertainty that Brexit brings. 

5. Environmental sustainability: 

Particularly striking were the number of groups who raised concerns about the environment. This very specifically related to the amount of plastic in the oceans and impact of climate change caused by CO2 emissions on the well–being of both the animal kingdom and human life. 

6. Health care: 

A good health care system was also identified as integral to the kind of society young people want to live in. This was defined in terms of better access to health care and the need for more jobs through which this could be enabled. Related to the issue of health, there was a strong awareness around cancer the and need to find to find a cure for it.

7. Mental health: 

Issues relating to mental health and the high rates of suicide that exist in Northern Ireland also emerged as key concern for young people looking towards the future. Recognising the detrimental effect that social media could have on the mental well–being of young people some groups looked to a society in which the use technology and social media was reduced and regulated. 

8. Education: 

Although emerging as a slightly less dominant theme, the need for a good and quality education was important to the kind of society young people want to live in. Interestingly, several groups identified the desire for more integrated education. 

9. Community relations

Concerns relating to sectarianism and community relations also emerged as a dominant theme. However, while wanting more integration and positive relations to exist between groups strong and opposing views relating to whether Northern Irelands remains in the UK or is united with the Republic of Ireland were also expressed. 

10. Local political leadership: 

Reflecting frustration with the current political leadership (or lack thereof) the desire for a better governmental structure was expressed. All groups expressed the desire for a political system that worked and benefitted all groups within the society. 

What then do these emerging themes tell us about the priorities, concerns and society young people want to live in? 

Firstly, the themes relating to economic well–being, education, safety and security suggest there is a feeling of uncertainty and insecurity among young people as to their future well–being. The felt threat of terror attacks coupled with the uncertainty that Brexit poses could compound a feeling of insecurity, as would concerns about the environmental sustainability of the planet. This raises questions for youth workers and teachers, both in the community and faith–based sector, as to how we better help young people cope with the uncertainties they are facing. In our decision–making and voting patterns what can we be doing to try and secure a more hopeful future? Can the principles of the common good help us with this? 

Secondly, what is perhaps more hopeful is that there was strong value for equality expressed by almost all the groups; equality is central to the principle of human dignity and pursuing the common good. Young people also expressed a natural understanding of our interconnectedness with the environment. This understanding was also reflected in their concern and desire for international cooperation and peace, particularly in the Middle East.  

Thirdly, intergroup polarisation and community relations remain an issue and concern among young people. In thinking about borders and belonging groups hold opposing views on Brexit and the question of a united Ireland. While many groups did talk about wanting a more integrated society, with an integrated education system and no more peace walls this shows that the Constitutional question (about whether to remain in the UK or unite with Ireland) continues to be keep young people politically polarised. Interestingly, however, despite groups expressing divided opinions on some of these issues, they tended to be regarded with a sense respect and acceptance; young people seemed to be comfortable with holding sometimes competing visions together. 

While the three insights into the concerns of young people highlighted in this paper are by no means exhaustive, they do provide an insight into the kind of society they want to live in. For those of us in leadership, whether within the faith, community, or political sector it requires thinking about the extent to which our decisions are promoting a society based on the common good. 


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