5 April 2001 Edition
Are we out of touch?
Hard questions asked at Belfast youth conference
BY MICHAEL PIERSE AND DAMIAN LAWLOR
Last Saturday, young people reproached the republican leadership. They asked them where they get off being so full of their opinions. Why don't they ask young people what they want? Why sometimes, are they not relevant to young people?
It was part of an open, frank and relaxed discussion that took place between older republicans, younger republicans and young people with no political involvement whatsoever, at a conference entitled `Republicans and Young People' at the Devenish Arms Hotel, Andersonstown, West Belfast. The conference was organised by Coiste na nIarchimí - the co-ordinating body for republican former POWs, together with young republican activists.
The idea of the conference was to provide a forum in which republican activists and young people from Belfast, and some from around the country, could share their perspectives on the relationship between republican activists and young people in the community. What came from this idea was a breath of fresh air for many of those who were present.
Reflecting from the vantage point of one of the workshops, there was a lot to be learned.
How do young people see republicans? From the responses of young Belfast people there, it seems that there are many hues to what a republican constitutes in their minds. In particular, there was a sense that sometimes they inspire fear, rather than respect. A hard nut to swallow, but something they honestly expressed nonetheless. Another thing is republicans' lack of interest in, or even knowledge of what actually happens in schools and amongst young people generally in West Belfast.
Many young people don't know where republicans are coming from. There is a sense that the history of the conflict is lost on them and that there is no concerted effort to educate young people on their immediate past.
Hypocrisies in the way adults treat young people were pointed out. The hypocrisy, for instance, in republicans taking issue with young people drinking a few cans on a street corner when, during the summer months, the very adults who complain are often standing doing the same thing themselves.
Young people also have low expectations of what the society around them has to offer. Most teachers, they say, cannot relate to young people in poor nationalist areas in Belfast. Drugs are sold and taken in schools and nothing is being done to counter it. Even many of the teachers themselves, they say, have low expectations of the young people they teach.
A depressing picture? But there were some elements that give rise to hope that amends can be made for these difficulties.
Belfast Sinn Féin organiser Eoin O'Broin will soon be publishing a book on the growth of the Basque national youth movement. He spoke of that movement and the model of good practice it provides for others.
The youth movement of the Basque nationalist left, Haika, is a significant threat to the Spanish state. So much so, that the organisation in recent weeks has faced severe repression. It has had 16 of its full time activists arrested and imprisoned. All its offices have been impounded and overall harassment has been stepped up.
Why is the Spanish state so frightened of this organisation? There are two core reasons why Haika is feared and repressed by the Spanish government.
First is the size of the organisation and the breadth of its activities. Haika has a core membership of about 4,000 members and organises a large number of colourful and vibrant campaigns on issues that affect young people in the Basque country.
One of the easiest ways to see the huge support the youth movement has is the `youth gathering' the organisation holds every two years. This attracts 20,000 people, who over a weekend participate in traditional Basque sports, political discussions, plays, protests and general political activity.
The second reason is that Haika is organised as an autonomous part of the nationalist left movement and its members are free to decide the policy and activities of the organisation. The support it has achieved for its policies is because it is in touch with the opinions of Basque youth. The lesson for youth activists in Ireland is that Sinn Féin, if it is going to become more relevant to young people, needs to be able to mobilise around youth culture and mobilise on youth issues. Last Saturday was a good start.