‘The Future is Precious’: NI Youth Workers Speak

Updated: Apr 9

No, this wasn‘t documentary footage from the seventies or eighties. The videos of young lads throwing fireworks over peace walls and bombing buses may well seem like remastered old clips, but this is what is happening in Belfast right now, in 2021. Cars are being burnt out in Waterside in Derry, too, and clashes in Sandy Row in Belfast on Sunday saw police officers hospitalised.


The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. It is twenty-three years old, only six years younger than I am. And a quick, admittedly unscientific look at the videos of violence popping up on Twitter demontrates than a large minority - if not an outright majority - of those engaged in violence are younger than the GFA itself.

What are we to make of this? The generation born into peace, under the banners of ceasefire and power sharing, are now reenacting scenes they have no lived memory of.

When trouble emerges we simply have to listen to the experts. And in this case, some of the most knowledgeable and under-heard voices are those of youth workers and educators. They know what is happening and, even more importantly, they know what has been happening.

NI youth workers know better than anyone what is really going on, but as Cllr Brian Smyth notes, it is vastly undervalued and underfunded. He writes, ‘youth work as been left largely to churches and to voluntary organisations who do their best on a shoestring budget. Young people are being missed and are left ripe for paramilitary exploitation.’

In this short piece I want to spotlight the work of those who are on the ground, working with young people from a generation politicians seem to have forgotten about, and some folks who have expertise in education, and practical wisdom for our schooling system. In what follows you will hear from a variety of youth workers and thinkers from different experiences and viewpoints, and both secular and faith based. I ask them for their analysis - how did we get here? And also how does NI emerge from this? I haven’t edited anything, and what you’ll read are their words, unfiltered.

Olivia, a youth worker in the Belfast area talks about the hopelessness of life in some of our most marginalised communities.

‘Why do I think the violence over the last few days has happened? Well first and foremost where I live in North Belfast there have been riots and violence for most of the past year but the only people that have dealt with it are the youth and community workers and the communities themselves. This behaviour has not happened overnight as many from a place of privilege like to think. Us youth workers have been crying out for years to have young people's issues taken seriously. To have their feelings & thoughts heard and understood. But unfortunately most people think (which I have read over and over again) that young people are stupid, that they don't know why they are rioting. The young people I have spent years working with are very aware that they live in socially deprived areas. They know they'll be lucky to pass a single GCSE, and that signing on to the brew like their parents before them will more than likely be the life for them too. They don't feel like a future is something for them. That is proven in the high suicide rates in working class areas that were mostly affected by the conflict. We are in a mental health crisis, a different type of conflict, young people are crying out for help, and they are being ignored. And now everyone wonders why they are on the street?’

- Olivia Davidson Millar, Youth Worker in the Belfast Area