Northern Ireland

Much of Northern Ireland's youth shows indifference to politics

Young voter Image copyright David Cheskin
Image caption Professor Peter Shirlow from Queen's University said young people were turned off politics by the focus on historical events.

If you're a regular at pub quizzes, perhaps you've been asked this question: "When was the voting age lowered from 21 to 18"

If you're a good at pub quizzes, perhaps you know the answer is 1970.

People who turned 18 on the day of that year's general election were treated like celebrities.

Delving through the BBC's archives, I found a film from Bridgewater in Somerset, in which photographers sing happy birthday to a girl called Susan as she arrived to cast her historic vote.

There is a familiar face in that piece, a Conservative candidate called Tom King, who went on to be secretary of state for Northern Ireland.

Asked how he hoped to appeal to the new generation of voters, he said that he was concerned about the quality and supply of jobs.

That issue is still among the top concerns for today's late teens and early twentysomethings.

I spoke to prospective first-time voters at two big events this week - the St Patrick's Day parade in Belfast and the Rugby Schools' Cup Final at the Kingspan stadium.

The same concerns came up again and again - employment, education, and the cost of living.

Recent political issues had affected some people first-hand.

A 19-year-old explained to me: "I'm a dancer, and I don't like the cuts to the arts."

Another said she was a student at St Mary's University College, and the recent uncertainty over its funding had shown her the importance of voting.

'More time arguing'

But many other potential first-time voters said they did not plan on casting a vote.

"The parties spend more time arguing with each other than doing things for people," explained one.

"There's no-one in politics here to vote for," said another.

Research confirms that the older you are, the more likely you are to visit a polling station on election day.

According to a study for the Electoral Reform Society, just over half of 18 to 22-year-olds voted in the 2011 assembly election.

But about two thirds of over-65s cast a vote.

The latest study by the Electoral Commission on voter registration shows a similar pattern.

Identity issues

In 2013, they estimated about two thirds of people under 20 were registered - but for the over 50s, the proportion was close to 100%.

Studies also show that younger voters care less about "identity" issues, such as whether they are British or Irish, than their elders.

Professor Peter Shirlow from Queen's University said young people were turned off politics by the focus on historical events.

"When I talk to my students, they make it very clear that the battle over the past is a big de-motivator for them," he said.

"They think politics is a cyclical conversation which doesn't include them and they're not particularly interested in it."

He pointed out that because politicians are more likely to give more goodies to older people - because they vote - a problematic cycle is created.

Young people get less because they vote less - so in turn they're even less likely to vote.

I asked the Commissioner for Children and Young People Koulla Yiasouma how that cycle might be broken.

She thought part of the answer lay in engaging voters of the future before they reached voting age.

"It doesn't start at 18," she said. "We need to start engaging young people as early as possible - not only asking them what they think about politics, but listening to them and saying 'you told us this and this is what we're going to do about it'.

"Then when they get the right to put an X in the box, they'll already have had some engagement in the whole process."

The campaign in the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum showed what an engaged new political generation looks like.

The poll was opened to 16 and 17-year-olds.

It's thought three quarters of them used their vote.

With the right issue, the detachment and disillusionment disappears.

But in Northern Ireland, it appears it'll take a huge change in the way politics is done to overcome young people's indifference.

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