March 31, 2010

Have our parents and leaders screwed up the country?

I have just returned from Malawi in southern Africa where I was with a group of Irish and Northern  Irish university academics in health, education and ICT who are working with  colleagues in Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda on a training programme to help build their capacity to raise the research performance of universities in those countries  (with the ultimate aim of helping them to turn out the teachers, doctors, scientists, engineers and other people needed to reduce poverty and overcome underdevelopment).  This is a project called the Irish-African Partnership for Research Capacity Building, organized (with Irish Aid funding) under the auspices of Universities Ireland, one of the all-island educational networks which the Centre for Cross Border Studies manages.

I brought home some vivid memories from that extraordinarily beautiful, friendly and impoverished small country. One of the most powerful is being on a country bus at seven in the morning and watching the roadside literally black with hundreds of small children walking to school.  The hunger for education in Malawi –as in so many African countries – is both all-consuming and unsatisfied.  In this country of 15.3 million people –  160th  out of 180 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index – 53% of the population is under 18, and yet a tiny 8,000 young people manage to access higher education. The equivalent figure in the Republic of Ireland is 141,000 out of a population of 4.2 million.

My experience of my student daughters and their friends in Dublin is that a significant number of them are deeply concerned about the massive injustice imposed on the underdeveloped countries of Africa and elsewhere by the current world economic system.  There seems to be an endless line of young people at supermarket checkouts in the city collecting money to finance trips to Africa to spend summers working in orphanages, schools and hospitals. Organisations like the wonderful student-led overseas volunteer organization Suas have more applicants than they can handle. The generosity of Irish people, including young Irish people through school collection boxes, to organizations like Trocaire and Concern, is legendary.

What young people think of politics closer to home is more complicated. Recent elections and referenda in the Republic have seen a low turn-out by people under thirty, and the first referendum on the Lisbon Treaty appeared to show a strong anti-EU sentiment among this age group.  Few of them join political parties any more, even left-wing parties. I was very struck when I addressed a Sinn Fein conference in London last month how middle-aged the audience was.  Surprisingly, the largest on-campus political group at the University of Ulster is not Sinn Fein but Fianna Fail.

Does this mean that young Irish people have lost their idealism and passion for radically reforming this island, its hidebound politics and disastrous economic policies (in the Republic, at any rate – the jury is still out on Gordon Brown’s government)?  Is the message – as it is on the front page of this month’s Trinity College Dublin student magazine, TCD Miscellany – once again “graduate and get out.”

I would suggest that the picture is not as simple as that (although it is true that the planes from Dublin and Cork to London are once again, as in the 1980s, packed with young Irish graduates). However I believe we ‘oldsters’ underestimate both the idealism and the intellectual engagement of our young people in general, and our university students in particular. In the past couple of months I have been approached by a number of young lecturers and students with proposals which confirm this impression.

Students and lecturers in Trinity College Dublin and Queen’s University Belfast have approached me (wearing my hat as secretary of Universities Ireland) with a proposal for a series of debates, starting in Dublin and Belfast, but extending eventually to all the nine universities on the island, on the possible shape of a ‘new Ireland’ (not, I hasten to add, necessarily a united Ireland) over the next 10-20 years. They have suggested a range of interesting speakers – writers and academics, journalists and media figures, even musicians and sports stars, but not politicians or churchmen – to take part in these. I would like to see them having really provocative titles like ‘Our parents and leaders have screwed up the country – what can we do about it?’  or ‘Our politics and religion are bankrupt – what can we put in their place?’

A postgraduate student at University College Dublin, Aoibhin De Burca, has approached us separately with a concrete proposal for a conference later this year, preceded by a number of focus groups in both Irish jurisdictions, with the title ‘The Agreement Generation’.  By this phrase she means those young people who have come of age since the 1998 Good Friday or Belfast Agreement: effectively the under 30s. The project will gauge the views of this post-conflict, post ‘Celtic Tiger’ generation on how a more inclusive politics can be moved forward and how this generation can have a genuine voice and stake in the future of Northern Irish and all-island politics.

If any person under 30 has any views on these initiatives (or others like them), I would be really keen to hear from them.  Universities Ireland has already decided to co-fund Aoibhin De Burca’s project, and would be interested to learn if there are any other imaginative student-led projects to highlight and promote the engagement of young people in the politics of this island in the coming decades. God knows, our generation – through the political leaders we elected and who turned out to be wrong-headed or corrupt, the paramilitary leaders we had a sneaking regard for, the banking and business leaders we were misled and ripped off by, and the church leaders we obeyed and who betrayed that trust – has left them with a pretty crippling legacy of problems to tackle in the future.

Andy Pollak