Family & Parenting

Leona O'Neill: As a society, we have badly let down our young people

Teenager Joel Keys's contribution to a Westminster commitee on behalf of the Loyalist Commuities Council was hugely dispiriting, says Leona O'Neill, and reflects how many in the post-Troubles generation feel left behind

In scenes reminiscent of the Troubles, rival groups of young people clashed at the interface on Lanark Way in west Belfast in April. Picture by Mal McCann

ANYONE who saw teenager Joel Keys speak to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (NIAC) could not fail to be shocked and horrified at the sight of a young man, fresh from school, painting a very grim picture from his generation's perception of what Northern Ireland's future could look like.

The 19-year-old supermarket worker was in front of the Westminster parliamentary committee on behalf of the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), a group that represents loyalist paramilitary organisations.

Dressed in a suit that wasn't a million miles away from his school uniform, he warned the government that should the LCC's demands over the Northern Ireland Protocol not be met, the use of violence couldn't be ruled out.

Simon Hoare, the chairman of the NIAC, reacted in the same manner as most of those watching did - being horrified, chilled and appalled by the words of the young man.

Loyalist Communities Council representative Joel Keys (19) told Westminster's Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that the use of violence to oppose the Northern Ireland Protocol was not "off the table"

Social media went into overdrive. Many who had direct experience of Troubles violence demanded to know who exactly the violence Mr Keys said couldn't be ruled out would be directed at.

Mr Keys was met with a wall of criticism from some quarters and praise from others for speaking out.

The emotion I felt most vividly after watching him speak was utter sadness.

The sight of a 19-year-old speaking of the possibility violence, not quite comprehending exactly what that would mean on a human level, was utterly, utterly depressing.

But Joel is not alone in that thinking. Across Northern Ireland there are other young people - on both sides of the community - who feel as he does.

Many of our young people are fed the narrative about good murders and bad murders, about noble and just killings and travesties that need avenging 

I have spoken to young loyalists, born into peace and with absolutely no concept of how truly awful it was to live during the Troubles, who have relayed their eagerness to fight and defend what they believe in.

Look at the attendees of the Northern Ireland Protocol rallies across the north in recent weeks. The average age of attendees is 25.

I have spoken with young dissident republicans who think the same way; others are acting upon their beliefs.

I have attended rallies and protests held by some groups, 95 per cent of those in attendance are under 30.

Look at the people who are on the streets rioting, none of them over 25 years of age.

It has been alleged in some reports that the gunman who murdered Lyra McKee was nothing more than a teenager himself.

We are in dangerous territory. And lambasting and shouting and ignoring them wont make it all go away and everything be nice and pretty again.

Shouting at those young people with the same viewpoint won't make them go away. It might alienate them and make them retreat to the shadows where they will still think the same way and even act on those thoughts, encouraged by those who have malicious intent.

Standing on the sidelines and screaming at them to stop thinking that way won't help either.

None of these young people - those who have acted on their beliefs and those who just talk about them - have any concept of the Troubles beyond a romanticised version handed down by those who went before them.

Everyone here is the product of their environment. You, me, young Joel, everyone.

And our young people are being brought up with our past in their present daily.

Many young people can look out their bedroom windows at murals of loyalist gunmen or republican idols.

Many of our young people are taken by the hand by their parents to commemorations honouring 'heroes' - those who murdered members of the 'other' community.

Many of our young people are fed the narrative about good murders and bad murders, about noble and just killings and travesties that need avenging.

People like young Joel and others of that generation who promise a grim future are simply a product of what is around them.

And as a society, we have let them down badly.

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Family & Parenting