Belfast, Northern Ireland — The political leaders caught up in the 30-year Troubles of Northern Ireland were so consumed with fighting over “land, soil, territory”, that they completely neglected the environmental welfare of that very same land, soil and territory, say young people born since the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) 25 years ago.
This is just one of the dismal legacies of the Troubles that young people born at about the time of the 1998 GFA – also known as “peace babies” – say they have been left to clean up.
At the One Young World 2023 Summit for young people held in October, marine life researcher Heidi McIlvenny said much of Northern Ireland’s most precious natural resources – including its marine and freshwater ecosystems that sustain life itself – have been badly neglected and mismanaged.
“Twelve percent of all species on this island are threatened with extinction,” she said.
The Good Friday Agreement, which brought more than three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland to an end, marked its 25th anniversary in April this year.
But the occasion was overshadowed by a sixth shutdown of the region’s devolved government which was created by the GFA, but which has been lying dormant for more than 40 percent of the time since 1998 due to disagreements between leading political parties.
‘Holding us to ransom’
Jacinta Hamley, 27, a climate campaigner who ran as a candidate for the Green Party in this year’s local elections, told Al Jazeera that much of Northern Ireland’s political “stagnation” derives from power-sharing arrangements that allow the biggest Nationalist and Unionist parties to hold devolved government to “ransom”.
“Whenever I look at the last 25 years in politics here, what I think we’ve seen is a failing system,” she said.
The power-sharing institutions created under the 1998 peace accord require governing agreements between the biggest parties of Nationalists (those who want a united Ireland) and Unionists (those who want to remain part of the UK).
However, the region’s devolved Assembly and decision-making Executive at the Stormont Estate collapsed under the largest Unionist formation, the Democratic Unionist Party, last year due to a prolonged row over post-Brexit customs arrangements in the Irish Sea.
While these institutions are not functioning, governance is passed to civil servants. This severely limits the actions of the government and often raises questions about overreach by unelected officials.
Talks to restore devolved government stalled once again this week, with an Executive now unlikely to be formed until 2024 at the earliest.
Falling between the cracks
In the meantime, vulnerable groups are slipping between the cracks of this political dysfunction, youth leaders say. Those who live in areas which bore the brunt of the Troubles – often those which were divided by huge concrete barriers – report seeing higher levels of deprivation than they did during the bitter 30-year conflict that killed more than 3,500 people.
Members of communities like the Nationalist Ardoyne enclave and the Unionist Woodvale area, both in north Belfast, say deprivation levels are worse now than they were 25 years ago. At the time of the agreement, such areas were promised a “peace dividend” in the form of economic prosperity which many feel has failed to materialise.
“The fact remains that the effects of the Troubles continue to fracture lives,” University of Ulster student Caitlin Ball told delegates on the final day of the summit.
“Communities across the North continue to operate under the grip of paramilitary control. And trauma – whether it be from our own lived experience or intergenerational trauma that has filtered down from the conflict – remains rife and unresolved.”
Ball also called for Northern Ireland to face down growing xenophobic sentiment in an era of diversifying social shifts.
Around 4 percent of people in Northern Ireland are now from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic background, according to the 2021 census, while it is thought to be home to about 150,000 migrants. This is double the 2011 figure of 1.8 percent (32,400 people) and more than four times the 2001 figure of 0.8 percent (14,300).
Ball highlighted “a rise in racially motivated attacks and intimidation”, with race hate crimes in some parts of Belfast having doubled in the past five years.
She argued that anger towards these groups was “misdirected” and that it should instead be aimed at political leaders and institutions that she said had failed many within Northern Ireland.
There has been a tendency to overlook the experiences of those left behind during 25 years of relative peace, she said.
Ball added it was essential to address the needs of “those who are homeless, who suffer from substance abuse, those who can’t hold down a job because of poor mental health issues, the Irish Traveller community, asylum seekers.
“We can’t stand here and talk about peace and reconciliation if that same peace can’t now be extended to the growing communities of people that now call Ireland home.”
A mental health epidemic
A number of young people, including some who gave speeches at the summit’s “What Next for Northern Ireland?” panel event, highlighted the region’s growing mental health epidemic.
In the 20 years immediately following the Good Friday Agreement, suicides in the region outstripped the number of lives lost during the 30 years of the Troubles by nearly 1,000, according to figures presented by a coalition of healthcare professionals to MPs in Westminster in 2018.
Campaigners say that an overreliance on medication and the lack of talking therapies have made it impossible to address the impact that various kinds of trauma have had on those living in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, waiting lists in the region remain higher than anywhere in Britain or the Republic of Ireland.
Matthew Taylor, 21, founded the United Kingdom’s first youth-led mental health charity, Pure Mental NI, when he was just 17.
He told summit delegates: “Climate catastrophe looming, incessant political paralysis in Northern Ireland, relations between nuclear powers ticking closer to midnight than ever before. And what are we met with?
“We are met with our political leaders with a resigned and ambivalent apathy to just do any better than this, any better than what we have.”
The ongoing hiatus at Stormont means no funding can be allocated to support a long-awaited mental health strategy for the region, amid rising demand and spiralling waiting lists. Planned actions as part of the strategy are expected to cost £1.2bn ($1.52bn) between now and 2031.
There is also a widening gap in mental healthcare service provision between Northern Ireland’s most deprived districts and its more affluent neighbourhoods. Prescription rates for mood and anxiety orders were found to be 66 percent higher in poorer communities than they are in wealthier areas.
The expenditure on antidepressants in the region, meanwhile, rose by more than 50 percent in 2020.
A botched environmental scheme
Many young people believe it is the legacy of environmental mismanagement which has compounded Northern Ireland’s yawning social crisis.
Northern Ireland’s devolved government collapsed between 2017 and 2020 due to the political fallout from a botched renewable energy scheme. The “cash for ash” scandal – a mismanaged green subsidy scheme which occurred under the leadership of the Democratic Unionists (DUP) – landed the UK taxpayer with a 500 million pound bill ($630m). The Nationalist party, Sinn Fein, walked out of the power-sharing government in protest.
Meanwhile, more than a quarter of all land in the region has become subject to concessions including prospecting licences, tunnel-digging, exploratory work and sample-taking, which have been granted to (mainly overseas) mining companies. Nearly 70 percent of all land in the Derry and Strabane local authority area, near Ireland’s land border, is subject to such concessions.
“Lough Neagh, which provides almost half of the drinking water for Northern Ireland, is grappling with toxic, blue-green algae blooms, threatening human wellbeing and wildlife,” McIlvenny said.
Ciaran Ferrin, 25, chair of the Belfast Climate Commission’s Youth Working Group, told Al Jazeera that the passing of the jurisdiction’s first-ever climate law last year was an example of young people’s political demands finally being translated into legally binding commitments.
“I think young people had a big role to play in helping get the Climate Act passed,” he said.
But, he added, the commission’s core function of providing a communications channel between the Executive and those aged 18 to 30, with a broad range of perspectives on climate change, cannot be enacted while the hiatus at Stormont continues.
‘It doesn’t work, so why bother?’
Jacinta Hamley, 27, said young people had become disillusioned with politics in Northern Ireland as a result.
“They think, ‘It doesn’t work here, anyway. So what’s the point?’ I think that, as long as we continue to have this failing system which can be dictated by tribal politics in this way, it might be difficult.”
But, Hamley added, there have been green shoots and signs that progressive, non-sectarian politics may gradually be emerging in Northern Ireland.
“I’m still hopeful. Because you see it – there is a surge of young people becoming more engaged, informed and involved with politics here. I definitely think there is potential for a better, more functional political system to emerge.”
In the event of a border poll on Irish reunification, something that has become increasingly likely as a consequence of Brexit, Hamley argued that cross-frontier questions of pollution and flood management, energy and food security will increasingly shape the day-to-day realities of people’s lives – whatever the constitutional framework or setting.
“Even if we’re talking about the constitutional and border question, the same land mass will be affected by these issues – for example, if we’re seeing extreme flooding and sea levels rise in Belfast and Dublin.
“These are critical topics that are pressing in an existential way and will impact the lives and wellbeing of citizens across the island. And, whatever way it ends up, we’ll still need to continue working with [the Republic of] Ireland and the rest of the UK in climate and environmental regulations and policies.”