Poll: Young people lukewarm in support for the Good Friday Agreement

A leftover from earlier in the week, courtesy of the Sunday Times:

Half of young people in the Republic admit they do not feel they fully understand the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland while one in four “don’t know” whether they support the Good Friday agreement.

This is according to a new survey conducted by The Sunday Times/Behaviour & Attitudes poll that questioned almost 1,000 people between October 27 and November 8 this year. The poll also revealed that one third of young Irish people think it is socially acceptable to say “up the Ra”.

Only 69% of “the youth” profess to support the Good Friday Agreement, as opposed to 86% of those of us who lived through it and voted for it.

In one way, that’s natural enough: Young people are predisposed to oppose the status quo and want to change it. For my generation, and likely yours, the troubles were the status quo and the Good Friday agreement was our historic change. For their generation, the Good Friday Agreement is the Status Quo, and, if you’re not happy with the status quo, you want to change it in some way. It doesn’t necessarily mean that young people are gasping to join the ‘Ra and start bombing UK cities again.

That’s the generous interpretation – and young people’s views are always accorded the most generous possible interpretation: “They’re radical, they’re hungry for change, they want a new world”. That’s what journalists usually write, because, well, most journalists, or at least a good number of them, are disappointed radicals themselves who like to live vicariously through the “youth”.

The less generous, but more accurate, interpretation is that some young people might be clueless idiots who shouldn’t be put in charge of anything:

While about two thirds of older age groups claimed to “fully understand the history of the Troubles”, just 42 per cent of people aged 18-34 said the same. Instead, half admitted they did not feel they understood the history of the Troubles, a feeling shared by only 31 per cent of those aged 35-54 and 25 per cent of over-55s. Despite this, this new generation was most likely to think it is socially acceptable to say “up the Ra” nowadays, with 37 per cent in favour, compared with just 27 per cent of over-55s, who lived through the Troubles.

The Sunday Times’ interpretation is that this absence of knowledge about the history of Northern Ireland has allowed Sinn Féin and others with a rosy-eyed view of the provisional IRA to fill the gaps in young people’s knowledge, but I’m not sure that’s true. For one thing, the data is rarely borne out in conversation: When you meet a young person who is vehemently in favour of singing “up the ‘ra”, they’ll rarely admit to you that they don’t know the history of the troubles. In fact, the contrary is true: They consider themselves veritable experts. Name an IRA atrocity, and they’ll respond with three more committed by “the other side”. It does convinced Republicans a disservice, I think, to suggest that they are helpless and clueless.

The less comfortable explanation, and the one I tend towards, is that the Irish state itself is to blame. We’ve just spent half a decade commemorating the old IRA – you know, the good IRA – oblivious to the fairly obvious point that Republicans make: You can’t on the one hand declare Michael Collins a hero and then say that similar tactics to his, employed by the provos, are totally illegitimate. It’s a nonsense, and in our hearts, we all know it’s a nonsense.

The attempted justifications for the moral difference (“the old IRA had a mandate from the Dáil”) are weak as water: The Old IRA had a “mandate” from breakaway MPs elected on just 46% of the vote – hardly an overwhelming mandate for war. But we have no choice but to legitimise that war, since we are its living beneficiaries.

The problem is that it is not illegitimate for any young person to ask why fighting the British to free Ireland was legitimate in 1919, but terrorism just 50 years later, in 1969. Constitutional Republicans are prisoners of that contradiction, no matter how hard they insist that it’s no contradiction at all. Try explaining to any young person why it is absolutely illegitimate – as the majority of this country insisted three years ago – to commemorate the Royal Dublin Constabulary, and its dead members, but vital to mourn the dead of the Royal Ulster Constabulary? It’s a nonsense, and one young people can spot, even as constitutional republicans delude themselves that their war was more special and honourable than that waged by the provos.

No, the problem, I’d suggest, is not that the passage of time has made Bobby Sands and his comrades more romantic figures, because they are less present in our lives. It is that the passage of time has made the intellectual contradictions in Irish Republicanism much harder to sustain. When people are bombing Omagh and Enniskillen, it is relatively easy to convince yourself that those actions are fundamentally different to Michael Collin’s celebrated targeting of the UK’s special branch in Dublin. When looked at over the course of history, those very important differences begin to fade, and young people start to spot the contradiction.

But then, I suppose, as a committed Redmondite, I would say that.

What is clear, though, is that the Good Friday Agreement has clearly failed in one respect: it has promoted peace, but it has done precious little for reconciliation. We’re now at the stage where we have young people shouting “up the ‘ra” in the face of Arlene Foster, whose father was shot by that organisation. We may hope that there is no prospect of a return to violence on this island, but polls like this show that the idea that the Nationalist and Unionist communities in Northern Ireland are close to reconciliation is a myth. They’re growing further apart than ever – and more so by the day.

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