BELFAST/BESSBROOK, Northern Ireland (Reuters) - The sudden collapse of a power-sharing agreement that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland has angered a younger generation who feel robbed of their future by the failure of politicians to get over the sectarian prejudices of the past.
After bitter compromises over paramilitaries and policing, the province’s cross-community government finally imploded over farmers abusing a green-energy scheme, forcing an election on March 2.
The confrontation has exposed the frustrations of younger people over what they say is a breakdown in trust between Catholic Irish nationalists and pro-British Protestant unionists that has stifled job creation and economic prosperity.
While there is no sign of a return to the violence that killed 3,600 people, the political crisis looks set to paralyse government in the province for months at the same time as Britain’s exit from the European Union threatens shockwaves to its economy, constitutional status and border with Ireland.
“People are frustrated because they can’t agree on anything. They can’t compromise,” said Carlos Barr, a 16-year-old student, referring to the older generation of politicians. “If one side says something the other side has to object.”
While it is impossible to quantify the impact of sectarian disputes on economic growth, many young people complain they have scared off foreign investment, delayed reforms and deepened a culture of dependency on the state in the two communities.
“CORPORATES PUT OFF”
“People don’t come together enough to make it work,” said Henry Joseph-Grant, 33, a Northern Ireland-born entrepreneur.
While jobs are disappearing in older industries like farming and manufacturing, Northern Ireland and its politicians lack the entrepreneurial culture to create new ones, he said. “A lot of the big corporates look at Northern Ireland and are put off.”
For swathes of the under-30s, the dominant feeling is the violence of the 1970s and ‘80s still casts a long shadow over political decisions.
“The frustration that young people speak to us about (is that) whilst they are working hard to ... overcome barriers and deal with legacy issues, they feel that this doesn’t always happen in mainstream politics,” said Chris Quinn, 39, director of the Northern Ireland Youth Forum.
The political crisis came to a head when Democratic Unionist Party First Minister Arlene Foster refused to step aside temporarily to allow an investigation into the green energy scandal and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said he had no option but to resign.
McGuinness, a 66-year-old former Irish Republican Army leader, was replaced by Michelle O‘Neill, 40, whose father was jailed during “The Troubles”.
McGuinness had a frosty relationship with DUP First Minister Arlene Foster, whose police reservist father narrowly avoided being killed in an IRA shooting when she was a child. The incident, along with a later IRA attack on her school bus, “is part of who I am”, Foster recently told an interviewer.
Two decades after the British army dismantled its garrison in the village of Bessbrook in County Armagh following the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the troubled province, 31-year-old Darren Matthews says he struggles to see a future.
“The old people, who are the bitter ones, keep us going round in circles,” said Matthews, a construction worker who commutes daily to Dublin and is planning to follow friends in seeking better pay and opportunities outside Ireland.
“If people were not so focused on the (Protestant) orange and (Irish nationalist) green, people would be getting a lot more work done,” he said.
Like most of Northern Ireland, Bessbrook was transformed by peace: checkpoints were demolished and helicopter landing pads that supplied military outposts were dug up for farmland.
The nearby Dublin-Belfast road was upgraded, bringing tourists from Ireland to visit Belfast museums and landmarks and pose for photos beside murals in once no-go areas.
But in many areas Northern Ireland badly lags behind its neighbour, with half the tourists per head of population. Dublin has 150 flights a week to the United States. Belfast has none.
Many complain jobs are often of lower quality. Average annual wages are less than in Britain as a whole and Ireland.
There is a steady outflow of school-leavers and graduates seeking their fortune abroad. “Of the guys I grew up with, a lot are scattered around the world” from Australia to Canada, Matthews said. “If the politicians were doing their jobs, more people would stay.”
“NO BREAKING ICE”
Few people see the election in March as delivering a breakthrough. “It’s that frustration of the inevitability of the election being this big thing to promote change but it definitely won‘t,” Matthews said.
“It’s going to be very difficult to have an election of a less sectarian flavour,” Jonathan Tonge, Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool. “I don’t really hear the sound of breaking ice.”
Early signs are that this election will follow a well-worn pattern, with election posters bearing colours of the Irish or British flag for the two main parties and each side focused on the threat of domination by the other to bring out their base.
Political apathy amongst the younger generation reflects a feeling that older politicians are locked in the past and refuse to engage with issues that they care about. Gay marriage, backed by 84 percent of under 34-year-olds, according to a recent survey, was blocked by the governing Democratic Unionist Party.
Ten of 12 young people questioned by Reuters in a straw poll in Belfast voiced deep frustration with sectarian bickering. They listed funding for mental health, integrated education and reform of power-sharing as issues they wanted dealt with.
Five said they would vote for non-aligned parties, which have made slow progress in recent years, taking 12 of 108 seats in 2016 elections compared to six in 1998.
Voter turnout has fallen consistently from 70 percent in the first Northern Ireland Assembly elections in 1998 to 55 percent last year, with a half of under 22-year-olds voting compared to two-thirds of over 65s.
At Belfast’s modern Victoria Square shopping centre, there was little sense the tide would turn any time soon. “It’s the same people arguing over the same things, it’s the same names,” said Maggie McSparron, 27. “They are flogging a dead horse.”
Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin; writing by Conor Humphries; editing by Peter Millership