Exploring the role of Youth Workers in Northern Ireland loyalist working-class communities: Sectarianism, Education and Languages.

By Giada Lagana

The division between Protestants/loyalists/unionists and Catholic/republicans/nationalists in Northern Ireland, regarding the nature and meaning of the conflict, encompasses all levels of society and all generations. For nationalists, their relationship to the British and Irish states remains primary, whereas for loyalists, the conflict with the other community is acknowledged as being of greater significance. It is then obvious how working between culturally and politically polarised communities has been an essential step in the peace and reconciliation process.

Over the years, there has been a significant rise in initiatives and interventions by Civil Society Organisations (CSOs). These have been the glue holding Northern Ireland together. They have involved engagement in various forms, with academics, members of civil society, political opponents, statutory agencies, peace and reconciliation groups and youth employment workers. The desire of these organisations to engage with critics and those with alternative perspectives is a sign of openness and a shift away from an inward-looking preoccupation, which arguably characterised the early days of the transition and that was traditionally conveyed in families and within communities. To include young people in such conflict transformation initiatives shows a significant willingness to tackle the political and social issues, which have torn Northern Ireland apart for decades, from the bottom up. Notwithstanding its importance alone, being young and unemployed is tightly connected to insurgency and criminal activity, yet existing research has only marginally explored the role played by youth workers in the peace process.

Nowadays, almost one in 10 young people are unemployed in Northern Ireland. The recent violence in response to the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol has showed that insurgency has been concentrated in loyalist areas where criminal gangs, linked to paramilitaries, have significant influence over the young. Most of the rioters were young people, with some participants as young as 12, according to the Police. Moreover, within these loyalist working-class communities, over the past decades, there has also been a growing concern coming from CSOs, and particularly youth workers, about the levels of educational underachievement. In the past, employment opportunities for Protestants from manual backgrounds were better than those of Catholics. As a result, higher education was seen as a major route for potential social mobility within republican communities. No equivalent emphasis was placed on education within Protestant working-class communities, even when traditional industries started to decline. This contributed to a significant, long-term undervaluing of educational achievement as a means for social mobility. To further aggravate this there has been a failure on the part of unionist politicians to address the situation meaningfully, which raises questions about the desire of unionist politics to bring about a change. Only CSOs are currently filling this gap. A youth worker active in a loyalist area of Derry/Londonderry (where the recent riots started) stated:

The only people who try to address youth problems are based in the voluntary sector. We should focus on the social hierarchy model upon which unionism has been built, where there are those to rule and those to be ruled.’

Historically, youth work in loyalist working-class communities started within civil society and with a focus on the rehabilitation of former loyalist political prisoners. The impetus arose for two reasons: first, given the long-standing resistance of politically motivated former prisoners to the label of offenders, accessing existing services provided by statutory agencies would have constituted an admission of criminality. Second, ex-prisoner groups generally embraced the concept of self-help, seeing themselves as possessing the necessary expertise to assist others in similar circumstances, while believing that the existing service providers lacked experience. In addition, as pro-state paramilitaries, loyalists had an ambivalent relationship with a polity to which they owed loyalty, but which imprisoned them for actions carried out in its ‘defence’. A youth worker active in one of Belfast’s interfaces described how the initiatives started:

Conversations started around how to best rehabilitate ex-prisoners: finding them a job, providing mental health services, or lobbing for changes in law. This was just the beginning, then the PEACE money arrived, and it did great things that have yet to be acknowledged.”

Indeed, the explicit objective behind the creation of what has been known as the EU PEACE package was to fully exploit the economic and social opportunities created by the end of the violence in 1994, and to push Northern Ireland nearer a permanent peace. The package of EU financial assistance was accordingly created with the following priorities: employment creation, urban and regional regeneration, cross-border development, social inclusion, investment, and industrial development. These categories highlight the emphasis placed in the programme on a twin-tracked economic and social approach. However, some of PEACE’s most important achievements have been so far overlooked:

‘It brought people together. During the conflict, there was a big problem of dehumanisation. If you don’t know or have a relationship with your enemy… or with what people class as your enemy… then it is a lot easier to attack and kill. But when people start forming relationships and seeing each other as human beings, then it is a lot harder to continue that sort of conflict. The PEACE money gave people the opportunity to come together, and it also gave a job to hundreds of people, especially former political prisoners. They also became community workers, working with young people to actually transform the society.’

The above quotation highlights three essential elements of the peacebuilding process that historically occurred in Northern Ireland. First, it demonstrates how peace is rooted on a dual approach aimed at creating new activities and job opportunities to rehabilitate the past into building a better and more solid future. Second, it highlights the importance of the concept of ‘transformation’ aimed at breaking down ‘the borders in the minds.’ Such work was initiated by CSOs, and it has been supported by the EU, over the years. Third – and maybe most importantly – the above quotation shows how such ‘soft achievements’ that have nothing to do with politics or financial packages have been overlooked by politicians and, in particular, by Brexiteers.

This short, preliminary analysis shows how historically, in Northern Ireland, tackling unemployment has been part of a precise peacebuilding strategy. This started, for loyalist working-class communities, with former political prisoners, but it continues nowadays with CSOs focusing on young people. Community workers are not simply trying to take young people off the streets, but they are peacefully challenging an out-of-date system based on a hegemony that has not been able to conform to modern times. A significant legacy of this is evident in the negative impact on Protestant working classes’ education and their consequent social mobility. The issue, and its social consequences, need to be addressed with greater determination by researchers, politicians and grassroot organisations, as it is about changing a mindset that is precluding new generations from seeing themselves as individuals with opportunities to fulfil their potential in life.

“Within Northern Ireland and youth unemployment… you’ve got obviously the conflict and people coming out post conflict and transforming. Young people are seeking for an identity, and you don’t want them to seek the wrong identity and go in a conflict situation again.  And things like the protocol on the Irish Sea border could encourage young people to go down a road that I never want to see anybody go down, because actually I grew up there, and I don’t want to see anybody else grow up through that.”

(Image: ‘Youth Vision’ sculpture, Ballymena © Copyright Lisa Jarvis)

Dr Giada Lagana is a Research Assistant at the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data (WISERD), School of Social Sciences (SOCSI), Cardiff University. This article is based on research and interviews she has undertaken in the framework of the project she currently works with Dr Sioned Pearce: “Youth unemployment and civil society under devolution: a comparative analysis of sub-state welfare regimes”. She has also recently completed a book, published with Palgrave McMillan, entitled The European Union and the Northern Ireland Peace Process.

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