Life

Leona O'Neill: How can my children have a future in Northern Ireland?

The effects of no political decisions being made about key issues across all areas of society for the past two years are increasingly being felt and it's leading to widespread anxiety and even despair. We deserve better than this, writes Leona O'Neill

In the past six months six young people I know have left their heartbroken families and their lives here for Canada and Australia – and who could blame them?

LIKE many citizens of this place I am totally fed up with our political impasse and the impact it is having on our society, on our economy, on our future and on our children.

It’s easy to forget day to day, as we sail along in life, getting out to work, looking after our children, trying to do our best, that we have not had a functioning government for almost two years.

It’s only really when that lack of government – and the instability that causes – comes up and slaps you in the face that the fact that our politicians are being paid a wage for not doing their jobs comes into sharp focus.

This year, as our children were starting back at school after the summer, I got letters home from both my younger and older children’s schools telling me that they had to let teachers go, budgets were stretched beyond measure and that some classes would have to be merged.

A principal told me that the lack of minister and the lack of budgets has left many schools adrift, uncertain of budgets and unable to plan ahead.

Every day in my job I meet people facing issues with health, employment, mental health, education and business who are crying out for a working government, for leadership, for stability, for hope for the future.

Every week it seems I’m hearing about some poor young soul who has been lost to the river. We have the awful honour of being a corner of the world where post traumatic stress disorder is prevalent, where more people have died from taking their own lives than being killed in our Troubles, yet we have inadequate mental health services and thin air where we should have a health minister.

Every week we hear of more deaths on the treacherous A5 road. Plans to upgrade the 53-mile stretch between Aughnacloy and Derry have been in place for 10 years, during which 30 people have died in accidents. A minister of infrastructure could OK the upgrade, yet there is a big fat empty space where he/she should be sitting making decisions.

In January it will be two years since Stormont collapsed and since our MLAs did their jobs.

People are fed up. Parents are concerned for their children’s future. Our young people are seeking distant shores for hope and opportunity, leaving our constant instability and ever fragile peace well behind them.

In the past six months six young people I know have left their heartbroken families and their lives here for Canada and Australia. These are not year-outers, these are people with businesses, jobs and young families of their own here. And who could blame them?

What can we offer them? Peace? Prosperity? Decent jobs? Stability? Equality? Investment? Good infrastructure? Respect? We can promise none of it because this is Northern Ireland and nothing is set in stone except ceaseless uncertainty. Maybe we can promise them a maybe, as in maybe we’ll get around to being normal some day.

Last week our MLAs got a pay cut. Far from appeasing the public, Secretary of State Karen Bradley’s move infuriated them even further, for a time, then everyone went back to ‘normality’.

I refuse to believe that all of the people who voted for our MLAs are happy that our politicians are getting their wages – even their reduced ones – for not doing their jobs, while the rest of the population struggle to keep their heads above water, while the schools their children are attending are haemorrhaging staff, while the wait in the A&E departments they attend get longer and longer, as the suicide rate goes up and we wait for proper mental health services, while families face welfare cuts, while businesses close.

I refuse to believe it because I would lose all semblance of hope in this place if it were true.

The Irish Language Act, Marriage Equality and RHI are issues we can and we should come to agreement on. We have overcome so much more. We despised and killed one another for years yet managed to get around a table and talk, create something worth having and worth hoping for.

We have learned to cope with so much. We have been battered down perpetually but we still keep going because our past experiences and our Troubles have made us a strong, resilient people.

We are used to the merry-go-round that is Northern Ireland and we shrug our shoulders and get on with it when things fall apart. We have become accustomed and acclimatised to crisis. It’s the state we live in constantly, rolling from one disaster – be that flag, bonfire, march, boiler or language act shaped – to the next, and it shouldn’t be so.

We deserve much more. The next generation deserves so much more.

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