We must listen to our children

Paul Gosling.
Paul Gosling.

The voices of children and young adults have been largely missing from the debate over Brexit – though they are the people who will be most affected. So it should be no surprise that there is resentment among many young people that decisions that influence their life options were taken by older voters, many of whom will not live long enough to feel the impact.

These realities were highlighted at a recent conference on Brexit, where the Children’s Law Centre reported on its conversations with young people in Derry. I interviewed Emma Campbell and Anna Grindle of the centre for the latest Holywell Trust Brexit podcast. Emma and Anna met with members of youth groups from the city, with 25 young people attending one evening, from different backgrounds, some who favoured leaving the EU and others who wanted to stay.

The questions asked by the youths were sophisticated. Many were concerned about their existing rights under EU law and whether they will lose these. They asked whether Brexit will undermine the Good Friday Agreement and if it will lose them their right to choose either UK or Irish citizenship – and if they opted for an Irish passport, whether they will be regarded as full EU citizens. (In point of fact, the answers to some of these questions are still unclear, almost two years after the Brexit referendum).

Discussions with young people also centred on different post-Brexit scenarios – about a soft or a hard border. They were concerned about the future of cross-border travel, in particular for those who live one side of the border and study on the other side.

They expressed concern about the future of their journeys to school or college, whether will have to show a passport, whether they will be delayed at the border and made late for school.

Some asked what will happen to their friendships if they have to change school? There was also an expression of frustration, that different sources of information produced different potential explanations of what is likely to happen. (That is a widely shared frustration, caused as much as anything by the continued lack of clarity about what will happen).

“Young people are active citizens and want to be treated as such,” explained Emma. “They may not have had the vote in the referendum, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have democratic rights. It has raised the issue of whether it is time to have the debate on lowering the voting age to 16. Young people are telling us that it might have been a very different outcome if they had had the vote.”

Citizenship was raised by another of my interviewees in the latest Brexit podcast, David Holloway, director of Community Dialogue. “We find that Brexit, in combination with the ongoing collapse of power-sharing – and this is important, it’s the combination of the two – represents a perfect storm for peacebuilding in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“Together, they are directly undermining all three strands of the Belfast Agreement at a structural level: the relationship between the two communities in Northern Ireland; the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; and the relationship between the two states, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

“What we are finding is that the structural breakdown is being reflected in the community.” This is reinforcing a growing retrenchment into traditional orange and green camps, a growing sense of tension between those two camps, a growing sense of suspension and resentment between those two camps. This is the tide turning against the trend of the last 20 years, warns David, with community relationships “going backwards” – the same phrase used by many young people who met with the Children’s Law Centre.

These are very important concerns – and ones that are perhaps heard far too seldom during the Brexit debates. Whilst it is necessary to talk about the economic impact of Brexit, we should also remember that the purpose of the economy is to serve its participants, which means all of us.

A weaker economy would mean fewer jobs and less income. There are differences of opinion about whether Brexit does mean that (and most respected economists believe this is the likely outcome, especially in the border areas of Northern Ireland), but we are already seeing clear signs of how community relationships are being undermined by the much greater focus on identity.

The latest Holywell Trust Brexit podcast is now available online and also features analysis of the latest situation regarding negotiations between the UK government and the European Commission and threats within Parliament to the Brexit strategy of Theresa May.

The podcast is available at https://soundcloud.com/holywelltrust/holywell-podcast-brexit-focus-episode-5