The Good Friday Agreement has succeeded in legitimising the Irish identity in the north of Ireland in ways unimaginable during the 30-year conflict that preceded it. Not only was nationalist identity guaranteed to be represented in the Northern Ireland Executive via mandatory coalition, but the citizens of Northern Ireland were entitled to identify as Irish, British, both or neither, and to have this identity recognised and protected by the state.
Moreover, Strand 2 of the Agreement ensured co-operation between both legislatures on the island through the North-South Ministerial Council. From the outside, Irish identity in Northern Ireland is equally valued alongside the British identity and enshrined in an international peace agreement co-sponsored by the British and Irish governments.
However, despite the removal of the barriers impeding formal recognition and protection of the Irish identity in Northern Ireland, there remains a sleuth of informal hurdles that can undermine Irish identity in the north. Recognition of identity remains an issue and continues to impact the generations born after the Good Friday Agreement.
Identity is a common focus in youth work. We are all more than familiar with the concept of cross-community youth work – it has even made an appearance on Derry Girls! There have been programmes seeking to bring together young people from the two major traditions in the north with the hopes of forming friendships and promoting tolerance for as long as the societal divisions have existed.
I myself have taken part in my fair share of these programmes. For the past 10 years, I have been involved in numerous programmes and projects on topics ranging from mental health and homelessness to education reform and LGBTQ+ equality. I have served as chairperson of both the Belfast Youth Forum and the Northern Ireland Youth Forum, two youth participation bodies that gave me a platform as a young Irish person to make my voice heard on a local and regional level whilst making friends from a wide range of different backgrounds. Moreover, the recently formed Northern Ireland Youth Assembly embeds youth participation even further into decision-making processes in the north of Ireland by mirroring the structures of Northern Ireland Assembly and including the voices of young people aged 13-21.
As a result of the socio-political divide, youth workers in the north of Ireland automatically incorporate a cross-community element in their service delivery. Balancing participants in terms of age, gender identity and community background is a basic requirement for most youth projects. No matter what topic the project is, cross-community engagement is almost always one of the desired outcomes of youth programmes, regardless of whether it is the primary or secondary aim.
As a result of the many successful cross-community youth programmes over the 23 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, cultural identity, although important, no longer entirely shapes youth service delivery. There are youth programmes in the north of Ireland about community leadership, sport, COVID-19 recovery, using drama and digital media in storytelling and more in which cultural identity is an afterthought. Within the six counties, meaningful youth participation is accessible on both sides of the political spectrum, with additional focus now placed on including young people from minority ethnic backgrounds, young people with disabilities and LGBTQ+ young people.
However, this is not reflected in youth participation structures beyond the north of Ireland. The nuanced identity of young people in the north is either not addressed properly, or worse, ignored entirely. Although youth work provision in the north of Ireland handles issues relating to cultural identity as though they are second nature, the default position of youth organisations both in the Republic of Ireland and in Britain when the topic of cultural identity in the north of Ireland comes up seem to be to hyper focus on sectarianism, or to not discuss it at all.
To a certain extent, voices from the north of Ireland are included in UK-based organisations such the British Youth Council, which runs the UK Youth Parliament programme. Mirroring the structure of the British parliament, hundreds of young people from across the UK are elected to represent their peers in the British House of Commons and raise awareness of issues important to young people in their constituencies. Up to 18 seats are reserved for young people from the north of Ireland, ensuring that northern youth perspectives are included in the Westminster policymaking process.
As a participatory model, the UK Youth Parliament does allow young people in the north to directly engage with a national legislature and to make their voices heard. For British-identifying young people or young people who identify as both Irish and British, the UK Youth Parliament is a meaningful space where they feel represented and can work with a political system that they believe is reflective of their identity. However, for some Irish-identifying young people, the UK Youth Parliament may feel like a distant concept that they cannot connect to and that does not represent their cultural identity.
In comparison to the UK, northern young people’s engagement in the equivalent national youth participation structures in the Republic of Ireland is extremely limited. Each of the 31 local authorities in the Republic have a Comhairle na nÓg, a shadow youth council which facilitates young people’s involvement in shaping local services and policies in their county. Once a year, Dáil na nÓg, the national youth parliament of Ireland, brings together young people from comhairles across the country to discuss and vote on issues relevant to young people in the Dáil chamber.
Comhairles and Dáil na nÓg are great ways of ensuring youth input in all levels of decision making in the Republic of Ireland. The only major flaw is the exclusion of northern young people in these processes. Although there are many cross-border youth projects, they rarely extend beyond cross-community peacebuilding programmes as opposed to meaningful participation in local and national policymaking structures.
For young people in the north of Ireland who identify as Irish and wish to participate in all-island youth structures, this can be alienating. It can feel like they are both too Irish to participate in UK-wide youth participatory bodies, and not Irish enough to take part in all-island youth programmes.
However, the tide appears to be turning regarding including the perspectives of Irish young people in the north in all-island youth participation structures. Issues like Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic have transcended the typical divides, and more partnership is being seen between youth organisations on both sides of the border on topics unrelated to sectarianism and peacebuilding. A great recent example is the joined work of the Irish Secondary Students Union and the Secondary Student Union of Northern Ireland on securing support for school students impacted by COVID-19.
I myself was recently appointed as UN Youth Delegate for Ireland and am the first person from the north of Ireland to be selected to represent all Irish young people at the United Nations, whether they live north or south of the border.
It has taken me 10 years of engagement with youth participatory structures to finally be recognised as Irish enough to represent my country and the young people who live in it. Whilst it is a great honour to represent 1.3 million Irish youth, I shouldn’t be the first person from the north to have this opportunity. 23 years after the Irish identity was legitimised by the Good Friday Agreement, there remains a long way to go to achieve full recognition of our Irishness in youth participatory structures.
As conversation turns towards the prospect of a border poll, we need to think about the role young people play in shaping the future of this island. If we want to create an Ireland of equals where all identities are respected, then we must facilitate young people from across the country to engage with each other and the institutions that deliver change, no matter what their cultural identity is. To do this, we must break down these informal barriers to participation and strive the voices of all young people, no matter which side of the border they were born on or whether they are Irish, British, neither or both.