Where have all the young men gone?

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Many in the educated liberal classes view the Armed Forces with ambivalence.  They are necessary for national security but war is evil and its consequences monstrous.  For working class Loyalists there is no such ambiguity; the Armed forces, that is to say the British Armed Forces, are held in the highest esteem, men and women of courage and conviction who are prepared to lay their lives on the line for our safety and freedom.  Indeed Loyalist families are particularly proud of their young people, predominantly young men, who are serving or have seen active service.

For many young men this is one of the very few employment options open to them, and therein lies a major problem.  Unemployment is particularly damaging to the confidence, morale and self-esteem of young men.  Many have already been given the message by an educational system tailored to the academically able, that they are failures. What now is their purpose in life, what is their role in society?  Have they a place or contribution to make, a responsibility to shoulder?

The responsibility to provide answers should not rest primarily with them.  Those of us who are established in our careers and positions of influence owe it to them to create employment opportunities, affirm their worth and provide role models and friendship.

The recent violence has provoked a further wave of invective towards Loyalists.   Brian John Spencer, in a recent blog on this site, called them ‘backward class, barbarian, curdled by hate, thug merchants, reactionary blockheads, blowhards of the past and street thugs.’ He is not alone in holding these views.  Criticism and condemnation of the violence is justified.  Pejorative labelling does nothing to address the underlying causes, change self perceptions or offer hope of a better future. Indeed it may reinforce negative behaviour.

In an earlier posting Dave Magee wrote persuasively of a crisis in Loyalist masculinity arising from the brutality of 30 years of conflict followed by a social and economic vacuum which offers young men little  in the way of aspiration, opportunity or role models.  It is hardly surprising that some take easily to rioting.  In the words of Bob Dylan ‘when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose’. Rites of passage such as entering the workforce and learning skills from older men which confer dignity, responsibility and a sense of belonging have largely disappeared.  Is it any wonder young men lack purpose? A bored unemployed underclass is inevitable and drug abuse a frequent consequence offering a cheap chemical high in an otherwise emotionally arid existence.

We owe it to these young men to create the circumstances in which they can develop and use their gifts in constructive and financially remunerative ways and an environment in which confidence, self esteem and self awareness can flourish.

This is essential if we want to give more than lip service to the goal of a just and equal society. Then perhaps some of our most problematic young men, in both communities, will believe that they are important, realise they are talented and discover that kindness and self control are part of being a man.


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  1. This is an excellent piece worthy of being read by a wide audience. There is a futility at work that is enticing young men to indulge in a sacrifice that is not really helping society. However, if we could exploit the young men’s talents for doing it would build character, enhance society, dare I say in – make men of them ………………and of course you know the rest. I really do not have too much time for those who would use them as weapons with which to beat the other side for political ends.

  2. John – this is a challenge for many in positions of leadership across our communities, and an article that shouldn’t just be read and put to the side. It’s also a challenge for those in positions of leadership within the loyalist community. Young people need more than a band and a drum. Let all of us work to give them some other way to be heard.

  3. Glenn Bradley on

    John, young Irishmen, north and south joining the Field Army is hardly a recent event or unique to Loyalism?

    I know of families from County Cork to Donegal to Andersonstown to the Woodvale who all hold the Field Army in the highest regard and are proud of their sons service in operational or peacetime duties. Indeed the Major depicted in the photograph is a former comrade who is both a Roman Catholic & from southern Irish ancestry.

    For centuries young men have joined the adventure that is: professional soldiering.

    It’s not new and it’s not specific to socio-economics in Loyalist areas. Indeed recruitment figures for our Irish Regiments today indicate a decline in interest as opposed to say my service era of the 80s and 90s.

    I do agree there are no role models and that those of us in established careers or positions of authority should try guide young people to better things, and I’ve oft written on this site about same and through commercial projects attempted same. However, as a local businessman that is extremely difficult to sustain when those who like to shout loudest are doing so or are rioting killing the much needed investment any commerce requires to develop then offer increased employment opportunity?

    The conversation on eradicating youth unemployment is not a 1 way conversation with your own community in the mirror? It’s about leading by example and showing that through education, training, dogged persistence and busting myths that there is a way to aspire to better things in life.

  4. John, I wish there were more insightful pieces like this in the mainstream press.

    It’s clear many working class loyalists feel alienated, even from their own elected representatives it seems. “Our identity is under siege” is a familiar refrain recalling their ancestor’s battles in past centuries. And if “no surrender” worked for Adam Murray at the Siege of Derry why not now. Indeed, it’s these staunch, no compromise men who are venerated during the marching season. They seem to think Republicans have “won” in NI despite the bitter pills both sides have had to swallow during the last 15 years.

    Step one, I would suggest, is including working class loyalists in a dialogue. Let them air their grievances. Lost in the riot coverage of Ardoyne, with a few notable exceptions, were any interviews with those on the streets. The press owe readers the “why” as much as the “what” in times like this, especially when many are following events via 164-character posts on Twitter.

  5. We all must take responsibility for our own actions and not blame others. It’s not fair on the other young men and women that at least try to better themselves no matter what. I know some of the people that John Kyle is talking about and some of them just don’t want to work and would rather hate people because that is what they prefer to do. Stop hating other people and talk to them.

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