Youth Work in NI and ‘the elephant in the room’

We love it when we hear from youth workers who want to write something for us! Today’s guest post is from Indu Callaghan, a youth worker in Northern Ireland who currently works for a hidden harm service supporting young people impacted by parental substance misuse. We are enormously grateful for Indu’s thought-provoking post and hope it generates discussion on our Facebook page and among youth workers more generally. If you are interested in writing for us, drop us a line:

Indu writes:

In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, this topic seemed to come up in our zoom/phone sessions as though it hit a nerve for most young people. Some spoke about the mistrust of authority figures (which is playing out extensively during the pandemic here) while others drew parallels with the ‘Irish oppression’ that has caused and is causing difficulties not yet fully explored in the mainstream topics discussed by youth workers with young people. Yet others talked about the political obsession with divisions which seem to dominate NI politics to the detriment of most other areas of day to day life including, education, health, economy and crime. Over the last decade, relative child poverty in Northern Ireland was projected to increase by 8.3ppts and absolute child poverty by 11.5ppts (Institute of Fiscal Studies, 2013) which is amongst the highest in Western Europe.  

Coming from outside Northern Ireland I have at times struggled to understand the reluctance to deal with these topics by teachers / youth workers. While I might not completely grasp the intricacies of the legacy of the conflict here, it seems to me that we are in a state of limbo which is robbing our young people of a better future. I simply cannot reconcile with this discrepancy. Should a balance not be sought between the past and the future? Often in political discourse the emphasis on the latter is either missing or divisive. It feels like the conflict is ongoing.   

It is the history of how these divisions came to be that might explain to the young people and give them the context to understand, that might make a difference in bringing about harmony between communities for at least the future generations. I think it’s crucial that the education system embed this aspect of history so that it plays a part in preventing young people from falling prey to the mistrust that is around and might be there for generations to come. At present the school system is largely segregated and geographical areas for the most part are segregated as well. This can set the tone for the future (for all but the lucky few who have been exposed to and have had a more rounded upbringing) creating an unconscious bias against the other side/community.  

With divided loyalties dominating NI politics it has been difficult to define a collective identity for NI. In a rapidly changing global landscape this is proving to be a disadvantage. Therefore, in this climate, what is our role as youth workers? I feel strongly that our role is to encourage young people to be curious about the past that led to where we are. Explore the complexities of the past and consider the implications for the future. The reason that schools don’t explore this topic is perhaps because it is not a topic of the past and is very much a current one. The conflict in most ways is not over. Despite the legislation and the lip service by powers that be, NI is still largely a divided community. Empowering young people will determine the direction of travel for NI. The young are passionate and courageous and I feel it is our role to give them the tools to decide what kind of place they want to call home and also to let them see that they are capable of being the change that they want to see (to quote Gandhi).  

The alternative is to sleep-walk into a bleak future, where politicians gain mileage by maintaining divisions and the only benefactors are politicians and the criminal gangs who terrorise communities in the guise of protecting them. In a community where there is a brain drain, trauma, division, mental and physical ill health and poverty, do we not have a duty of care to the future generations to lessen their burden? According to Hoffman and Kruczek (2011), models of individual trauma don’t capture the complex, multi-systemic effects of large-scale catastrophic events and disasters. There are the direct effects of mortality and injury and the indirect effects of chronic stress, ineffective coping, loss of social networks, feelings of injustice and the effects of physical illness. Both of these are underestimated.

Instead we burden them with a history that is not fully explored and put into context, but merely for the most part depicted by symbolism. Like anything that is not fully faced it seeps into the unconscious and biases are formed without justification. While the political classes play ‘Russian roulette’ with the futures of the young people of NI, the segregation which is mostly prominent in working class neighbourhoods (of which there is a large number) makes it increasingly difficult to relate to a community whose difference appears to be significant yet to an outsider seem imagined.

In this present climate organisations who work with youth, strive to provide neutral spaces for young people, by cleansing their environments of any sectarian memorabilia so that they are indeed deemed to be neutral. To me this just doesn’t seem to be an answer to a long-standing problem but simply maintains divisions by pretending that if it isn’t seen then it is not present.   

This situation can invariably limit choices of where you can live, what jobs you can apply for and who your friends are. Surely, we want better outcomes for the next generations! Especially since in the covid era we will be leaving them a substantial debt to service and global warming is certain diminish their quality of life. Isn’t it our moral obligation to leave them with at least the ability to choose, freely and appropriately for them?


Hoffman, M., & Kruczek, T. (2011). A bioecological model of mass trauma: individual, community, and societal effects. The Counselling Psychologist, 39(8), 1087-1127

Institute of Fiscal Studies. (2013) Child and Working age poverty in Northern Ireland from 2010 – 2010. (R78) London,

Guest post by Indu Callaghan, who currently works for a hidden harm service supporting young people impacted by parental substance misuse. Published 23rd November 2020.

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