--Briedge Gadd
Irish News

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting some Northern Irish students.
As always they were impressive. Anyone would feel good that we
produce such talent and commitment. All of them felt that their
parents and teachers had done them proud and they would like, if they
could, to give something back to the country that had educated them.

Might they therefore join a political party and play their part in the shaping of the future of the country? The look of horror on their faces as this question was posed would have been comical were it not so worrying.

Now I'm not naive. I know that while some young people are fascinated by politics, as a general rule 20-year-olds believe there are more important things in life, and so it should be. The unsettling thing for me though was their horror that at any stage they might consider politics. With the exception of one young woman who already is a member of a political party, all asked what party could they possibly join?

The long and the short of it was that these young students were
convinced that politicians, political parties and the political
process was a no-hope game in Northern Ireland, and that they would
be tainted by any association with it. The political process is dead,
long live politics.

Most of them, as they mature and have children and start to think
about issues around health and education, will begin to realise that
political processes are not optional extras, and that politics is
literally about the air that we breathe.

Many of them will become totally disillusioned and take their talents
and brains elsewhere. Unless that is, we, their elders urgently
commit to making the political processes work. While I was filled
with admiration for these personable young people, I also felt sad
for them. When I was their age my fellow students and I also would
have been cynical about political processes and politics.

But we had hope then. We had anger, and most importantly, a burning
desire to change things. We marched. We sat on roads. We had fiery
and inspiring debates.

This new generation does not have these options.

We have been through turmoil for 30 years and every conceivable
approach to political reconciliation seems to be failing. No wonder
they have no hope.

Everything they could possibly do has already been tried.

There is no doubt that life has improved here. A benign or perhaps
guilt-ridden British government, a committed Europe and an emotional
America, have supported us to establish a more equitable society in
their hope and belief that by doing so we could establish some form
of participative democracy and learn to govern ourselves.

The positive impact of this care and attention has been to improve
the lot of those most in need of and desirous of change to the extent
that the burning sense of injustice has gone.

The danger is that the thirst for self-government may also have
dissipated. Having lived through great upheaval, we now seem to be
prepared to tolerate continued direct rule indefinitely.

Tony Blair constantly talked about there being no Plan B – that the
Good Friday Agreement was the only plan. I do not doubt his good
intentions about Northern Ireland, but he is wrong about there being
no Plan B. We are living in Plan B – benign dictatorship from
Westminster which looks like it will and can continue long term.

As Scotland, Wales, and then England develop separate and distinct
democratic entities, our absence of real democratic processes will
become starker and more obvious.

The great principle of governance – no taxation without
representation – is in danger of being lightly cast aside in Northern

Maybe for a short time the essential services, including the air that
we breathe, will continue to work better under British ministers who
have no electoral mandate from the country in which they take their

In the long term, how can a divided country thrive and prosper when
its future generation is so disgusted with the lack of political
progress that they won't have a politician about the place?

There is a growing realisation and fear amongst nationalists that
Plan B – direct rule with its corrosive effect on self-identity, its
negative impact on inclusivity in political decisions – suits
unionists very well. Anything is preferable to sharing power with

If there is any truth in this assumption, the young students are
right to be disgusted.

They also should be very worried.

March 10, 2004

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