‘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

Here, we go deeper into the frustration of frontline work, with David explaining how the spectacle of youth violence detracts from years and years of good youth work.

‘The biggest frustration in a new generation being sectarianised is that it obscures the work of many men and women and young people themselves who have been quietly working at peace and reconciliation for decades. And we are talking here about many organisations run by hard working volunteers and staff.'
'Youth work and youth centres are only a sticking plaster, and usually an underfunded one. Youth work practice is in its essence 'small p' political; it is about young people finding their voice, it's about citizenship education; it's about young people bringing their experience to the table, whether it's about disability or LGBTQ+ or faith issues or environmental concerns. It's about what it is like to be a young man or a young woman. But youth work being used as a sticking plaster won't cut it. It is only one fire hose when the City Hall is ablaze.'

- @weepilgrimdavid / http://www.weepilgrim.com/

Professor Tony Gallagher makes the point here that where hope is absent, we would do well to look at our educational systems. He writes with conviction on what we ought to be aiming for here in NI.

‘We need to give young people a sense of hope, not just for the present, but for the future. Instead, our education system is characterized by unequal opportunities and unfair outcomes. We divide young people in almost every way imaginable, put them through exam systems designed to produce unequal grade patterns and encourage a narrow focus on qualifications as if they are all that matters. And after all that we know more about the outcomes of those who graduate from university, and least about those young people who leave school with the lowest levels of qualifications. Our current priorities are upside-down. Every young person should have a reasonable expectation that education will provide them with the qualifications, attributes and experiences to help them get a decent job and live a fulfilled life. Genuinely world-class education systems already achieve this, and so should we.’

- Prof. Tony Gallagher, Professor of Education, QUB.

Mairead, MyStoryYourStory campaigner, notes that youth work is a valuable tool in our struggle with generational sectarianism.

‘I think we still have a minority in the NI who still gauge these echoes of violent sectarianism into working class communities. They project these attitudes into the new generations who accept it as fact, until they are provided with opportunities to gain an understanding into the destruction that sectarianism causes. Youth work is valuable here, as it provides a fore bearing and integrational environment for individuals of all beliefs. This provides opportunities for cohesion to communicate and understand how people can be different in views and realise that we are all individuals with so many other components other than our communal status. We hold other commonalities; not only similar backgrounds but similar elements of the human condition ;empathy, interests, humour, struggles, wins, a lot in common than what is thought. A wall blinds the visual and physical perceptions and connections that could be made, leading to a conjured image created by voices and whispers, polarising society. Youth work is the light in the void that aids in the formulation of cross-communal relationships. It is foundational to many cross-communal relationships and friendships that I and many others have formed in our physically segregated society.’

-Mairead, MyStoryYourStory Campaigner

Alan, a teacher and youth worker, hones in on the unavoidable class dimension to this.

'The ‘politics’ at play in NI this week are completely uninformed & limiting. The areas of our country (& people- regardless of age) who are able to move forward, genuinely, are those whose identity is not a colour & whose belief is not informed by what someone else wants or aligns with. Children throwing petrol bombs at police are another fine example of the “politicians” in this country using the working class as mere pawns. The answers lie in education, in relationship, understanding & through forgiveness. A political party is not capable of holding or demonstrating a belief, never mind living it out. Only we as people can do that.'

- Alan Duddy, Teacher/Youth Worker

Cllr Brian Smyth provides powerful analysis of where we are, and where we have come from. Brian unpacks just how complex and particular our problems are here in NI.

‘We are dealing with multiple crises at the minute. Sectarianism and a divided society, Stormont was out for three years and now we have a failure of leadership. We’re dealing now with Brexit and the Protocol and all the ramifications of that. And now we are struggling with COVID-19. Northern Ireland is a traumatised society and we are dealing with layers and layers of trauma, and we have never got around to unpicking that.‘
’Twenty three years on from the Good Friday Agreement, suicides have now taken more people than were murdered in the Troubles. We have particularly failed working class communities. They are facing generational unemployment, there is just no hope. We have failed to invest. And it’s not just in loyalist areas, look at what happened a few years ago in Derry with the murder of Lyra McKee.’
‘It all goes back to a failure of leadership from the top down. There is a huge gap between Stormont and working class communities right across NI. Irrespective of whatever flag is on the lamp post, politicians are so disconnected from communities. We are dealing with systemic poverty and people’s dignity being stripped back. You look at terms like ‘working poor’ and the use of food banks. It’s almost like we‘ve given up. The challenge for us is how do we reinvigorate ourselves. And we have to put young people at the heart of the decision making, because we’re passing all of this onto them.’

-Cllr Brian Smyth, Green Party Counsellor for Lisnasharragh

Youth workers and teachers are at the coal face of NI grassroots politics. Youth workers in particular are constantly chasing funding just to do the fundamentals. Imagine what would be possible in our communities if we equipped our youth workers with world class resources, gave them jobs that were long-term funded and allowed them time and space to build relationships with the very young people who need them most.

And as this article is being hosted on a progressive NI Christian website, we have to issue the call to Christian youth workers to get stuck in to this. So many do, and yet so many don’t. Too many churches here in NI are middle-class dominant, and hold up middle-class values as normative.

These churches often hold a theology that is solely spiritual, one that focuses on salvation for the life to come. It is no wonder then, that so many Christian youth workers focus only on the spiritual life of their young people and are spooked by sectarianism, sex and STIs. Instead, we ought to look at Jesus. He got stuck in to the issues of his day, he spent time with the people the elites had no room for, and he taught peace as a way of life. The truth is that people in the margins, those who have been forgotten by their leaders, have more in common with one another than they do with their political representatives or the churches in their areas. And it is a heartbreaking thing to see marginalised young people cut off from hope, turning on one another. Churches can be beacons of hope. But they simply have to stop caring about their image, or what people might say. Throw open those doors and demonstrate the grace that holds your faith together.

We could do worse than demanding our politicians equip our youth workers, that they begin to value them, pay them, and trust them. Youth work is essential work everywhere, but here in NI it may well help us save a lost generation.

There is a message these young people need to hear. And it doesn’t much matter if it is couched in religious language or secular. It goes something like, ‘you are worth more than this. Your future is as precious as you are. This country needs you at your best. Demand better from your leaders, for anything less than a guarantee of opportunity is not worthy of you.’

Andrew Cunning is the Director of Left Side Up.

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