Life

Leona O'Neill: Let's make the north somewhere our kids want to return to

Teenagers are currently preparing to head off to university in England and elsewhere. If we want them to return home after they graduate, we have to make sure the north becomes a society capable of providing the kind of life they deserve, writes Leona O'Neill...

Many teenagers are being packed off to university outside the north
Many teenagers are being packed off to university outside the north Many teenagers are being packed off to university outside the north

THIS week will see hundreds of families travelling outside Northern Ireland to drop their children off at university. Some of them will grow roots in the places they land and stay there, others will come home and make a life for themselves here.

It's hard to know at times, when you look at this place and all its problems – and it certainly has quite a few – if it is better for the next generation to go elsewhere to build their lives, or come home and battle to try to make this place better. Because at times, that is what it feels like living in this place: a battle to progress, a battle to stay afloat, to build business and build a life.

The lucky few here can get themselves to a position where the huge societal problems that exist in Northern Ireland are but a mere whisper, raising slightly to an audible sound when things go pear-shaped and impact directly on their lives. They can view Northern Ireland from a privileged vista, where I'd imagine things look far better.

A lot of other folks just have to look out their living room windows or walk down their street to see how far we still have to go here to be a normal society.

This week, my boy heads off to university. My friends with university-bound children speak of waving them off at airports or leaving them behind in other countries. We leave them in the hope that they will spread their wings, remember their roots and come home to us eventually, raise their own families near us and have good, happy, healthy and prosperous lives that bring them joy.

Going to university in a different country can be an invaluable, eye-opening experience for teenagers from the north
Going to university in a different country can be an invaluable, eye-opening experience for teenagers from the north Going to university in a different country can be an invaluable, eye-opening experience for teenagers from the north

But, if we are to have our talented and vibrant youth stay with us and return to us, we have to make this place sustainable, attractive, workable, progressive and forward-thinking, so it meets their desires for a good life.

At the moment, our political system is broken, and the cancer that has rooted itself at Stormont is growing unrestrained, infecting every aspect of life here. Restoring the institutions won't fix everything overnight, but it will allow us to take the first steps – for perhaps the millionth time – towards a normal society again.

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Northern Ireland could be great. There are so many young people boarding planes and ferries this week who would make it so, who could add to the great work already being done. But the Northern Irish mentality of ceaseless sabotage has to be weeded out first. We need to work together, all of us, to make this place good.

Stormont – still closed for business. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Stormont – still closed for business. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire Stormont – still closed for business. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Economically, Northern Ireland has so much potential. The emergence of a vibrant tech industry coupled with an ever-growing creative sector has opened doors for innovation and job creation. Staying in Northern Ireland could allow young entrepreneurs to leverage this momentum and contribute to the growth of their local economy.

Our young people can establish start-ups, invest in local businesses and collaborate with international partners, while keeping the economic benefits within the region. We have to shine our light brighter than those who seek to dazzle and keep our youth.

We have so many positives here in this place. But if we don't face our challenges head-on, we will keep losing our youth to other places who can promise them more. Economic disparities, political uncertainties and lingering sectarian tensions make the headlines and are argued over ceaselessly, but the problems are never really solved.

We've long been a bastion of how not to do things: isn't it about time we became a beacon of progress that guides people home?

Wishful thinking, perhaps.