Throughout February, we’re getting people from all over Northern Ireland to contribute personal pieces in the run up to the election on March 2nd. 28 days in February for 28 different voices.
Last year I read Queen’s University vice-chancellor Patrick Johnston saying that more than a third of students are leaving Northern Ireland at 18.
I myself left NI for Norwich for university at 21. Prior to that, I had struggled to find employment after college outside sales positions and had not been accepted on a place for university in NI due to limited intake numbers. I then applied for England instead, and despite I paying the full £9k fees a year so far I am gaining more life experience than I was at home.
I know many other people who are around my age who left NI for Great Britain, America, Australia or Canada because of lack of employment opportunities and limited university places. When I returned home at Christmas I even had a relative tell me that he is in the early stages of applying to live, study, and then hopefully work in America for the exact reason above. This is where I believe that Stormont and the NI Executive has failed young people.
Prior to leaving NI I had been reading different stories on the DUP and Invest NI giving grants to international call centres. The poor working conditions, low pay and high staff turnover are well documented. Furthermore, they then close once the grant has run out after two years. Amazingly, the Belfast Telegraph had the audacity to claim call centres ‘stop drain of young talent’. The attitude of our government settling for less and letting companies misuse these grants is extremely damaging to NI’s already challenged economy. If NI was attractive enough for HBO to film Game of Thrones here, why can we not use our brains and skills to attract better businesses to NI?
Our political parties are not doing enough to retain younger people. I haven’t heard or read any solid plans for the NI economy, post-Brexit, education or the NHS. Queen’s and University of Ulster have the lower £4k fees to their advantage, but if they were to put the fees up to £9k a year like in the rest of the UK, how many prospective students would still chose to go to university at home? If a third of 18 year olds already are going across the water regardless of the fees and living costs, it’d be safe to say both NI universities would have serious problems with student numbers.
However, the issue of Northern Ireland’s “brain drain” needs to be examined with a broader perspective. Yes, there could still be young people that feel they are escaping sectarianism, but Northern Ireland in 2017 is unique to the rest of the UK and Ireland in other ways. There are peculiarities of Brexit and how it will affect the border. Our executive has collapsed again, and it seems like the country can hardly govern itself. But civil rights issues stand out.
Women and LGBT are discriminated against in Northern Ireland in ways that aren’t reflected in the rest of the UK or Ireland. Living in England, I have met people from different diverse backgrounds, sexualities, and religion. I have many friends from the LGBT community and they are completely ignorant of NI’s current problems. They are shocked that equal marriage is consistently blocked and that NI is the only part of the UK and Ireland that hasn’t legalised it yet.
Similarly, last year my friend was in complete shock when I told him that a . Religious extremism stills holds NI at a strong grip, and I cringed when an English friend asked me about Asher’s Bakery making the UK wide news again. In essence, it scares me to think that women and LGBT members would be treated very differently in another part of the UK – despite the DUP going out of their way to ensure NI ‘is safe and secure in the United Kingdom’.
So would you blame someone for leaving?
Despite all this, throughout Northern Ireland’s rich history we have had such excellent practical talent and academic achievement. We have accomplishments in the arts, academia, poetry, music, entertainment, architecture, sport, and beyond. We’re consistently the best performing country in examination results in the whole of the UK. I’m baffled as to why we do not use this to our advantage.
So many are quick to dismiss young people for not voting yet there are so many young people in NI who are confused and disillusioned by local politics and have absolutely no faith in their representatives. It is a Catch 22 situation, and this election has resulted in the most sectarian campaign yet by the DUP. Uninspiring coverage from the Belfast Telegraph has shifted the focus from what’s ‘right or wrong’ to ‘green or orange’ yet again, and this is only going to lose whatever faith young people have left in Stormont.
I still completed my postal vote for the upcoming election. I don’t vote based on party, I vote on the individual. This election has potential to change the status quo in Northern Ireland if people can listen past the tribal drumbeats. Politics shouldn’t be funny, yet it is – and continues to be parodied.
I am unsure in the future of returning to live and work in NI, but it is early days to decide on that. However, the current handling of NI from Stormont is a discouraging factor. Soon my generation are going to be stepping in from the older generation before them and will be making the decision – it is important, and I am calling for all parties to invest in the future and to create opportunities and retain younger generations in a non-sectarian Northern Ireland. I believe everyone deserves better.
Photo Credit: James Ashe