McEvoy: Northern Irish youth face host of challenges
Though conflict in Northern Ireland is nothing new, the youth there are encountering more uncertainty, insecurity, inter- and intra-communal violence and segregation than ever before, according to Siobhan McEvoy, who spoke Tuesday at Notre Dame.
McEvoy, a visiting fellow at the Kroc Institute, examined young people's political attitudes and allegiances, experiences of violence and interests in the war-torn province.
She spent the last several months in Ireland interacting with mostly Protestant youth and conducting interviews to gather information. While there, McEvoy witnessed firsthand the vulnerability of the peace process, as well as the optimism of youth that can envision a peaceful future. Northern Ireland's peace process is generally seen as spanning the last seven years, McEvoy said, with 1993-1998 being considered the conflict resolution era and 1998 as post settlement.
This current method looks to see that actions taken are viable with the young.
"No group is more charged with carrying the peace process forward than the youth," she said.
Knowing that more than 40 percent of Northern Ireland's population is younger than 24, McEvoy said that the youth hold the hope for a peaceful future. For those she studied, anywhere from one-third to one-half of their lives have taken place during the peace process.
"There is no escaping the peace process, and the children above all are aware of and affected by it," she said.
Though all are aware of the need for peace, there exists a notable difference in how this peace is envisioned, McEvoy said. Opinions are influenced, for example, by where one lives, his or her socioeconomic status and religious affiliation. In Northern Ireland, one-third of all children live in poverty, the unemployment rate is the highest in the UK and 27 percent of those unemployed are under 25.
One of the areas McEvoy concentrated on concerned the youth's perception of violence. Here she found that these ideas were "shaped by local history and parental experience." From 1994 to 1998, violent outbreaks in Northern Ireland declined. Since then, however, the rates have steadily risen.
People between the ages of 16 and 24 are more likely to have witnessed and participated in sectarian violence. When McEvoy surveyed 12- to 17–year-olds, she found that 76 percent felt that this violence was directly linked to religion. Twenty-five percent said they had to hide their religion from others; 27 percent had received threats because of their religion; 47 percent purposely avoid certain places out of fear; more than half understand religion as a source of violence.
These violent attacks, however, stem not only from members of opposing sects, but also from the police and paramilitary soldiers who supposedly prevent violence.
"The youth are acutely subject to police brutality and community sanctioned punishment in many areas," she said.
These violent attacks continue unabated in post settlement-era Ireland. Eighty percent of 16- to 25-year-olds have experienced physical, verbal and sometimes sexual harassment.
"Religion-related violence remains an immediate experience in the peace process for many youth," McEvoy said.
Though it seems the youth should be interested in turning their leadership away from violence, their political allegiances lie overwhelmingly with either the Democratic Unionist party or its Republican counterpart, Sinn Fein, both of which are seen as highly militant groups. However, 19 percent of the youth surveyed said that they do not support any of the parties currently active in Northern Ireland.
"The youth are frustrated that there are few real opportunities for engagement other than the sectarian or extremist groups," McEvoy said. "They have very low perceptions of political efficacy."
The major challenge for peace builders, she said, is to accommodate and constructively harness the diversity of the youth.
"The young aren't just victims of change but active participants in the transformation process," she said.
All News Stories for Wednesday, March 8, 2000