The Vice Chair of the Haass Talks, Dr Meghan O’Sullivan, was back in Northern Ireland in recent days meeting with a wide range of non-political groups.
It sent out an important message – that this process on the contested issues of flags, parades and the past is not the exclusive domain of party politics or of those who directly experienced the conflict.
As a representative of Children in Northern Ireland (CiNI) I attended one of the meetings with Harvard Professor Dr O’Sullivan, there as part of a wider group representing children and young people.
While it is important to hear from groups representing children and young people it is vital that their voices are heard as well. Their’s is the generation that has to both confirm and build the peace.
So, any examination of the past must extend beyond the conflict generation.
Many young people lost their lives during the years of conflict. Others were forced to live with the heartache of growing up without their fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, and extended family and friends. Some spent many years where their only contact with a parent was through a prison visit. This was all part of decades of suffering.
The next challenge is to change the conflict mindset and explore new thinking and new ways.
Young people have a vital role in this – one of our messages in that meeting with Dr O’Sullivan, and something we at CiNI hope to build on.
Our view is that today’s younger generation are the peace builders of tomorrow and must be empowered and encouraged to participate both in dialogue and in the shaping of any initiatives that might emerge from this latest talks process.
It can’t just be a matter for politicians, but for the people across the different generations.
Young people should be heard. Leaders should not assume that they know their thinking and their needs.
This must be an inclusive, holistic process – not exclusive and not restricted to a few or the usual voices.
Already there are examples of people and communities feeling “marginalised”. This should not be reinforced by an approach that excludes key but often unheard voices.
Engagement with children and young people must be across the age-range, including children who have not yet reached their teenage years.
Research shows that from an early age children do exhibit small but significant cultural and political awareness.
Among the questions to be addressed are;
How does the post conflict generation build on the peace and what are their priorities and needs in doing so?
How do they learn about the conflict, and in a way that is not pre-determined by others but allows them to come to their own conclusions?
How do we create regular, accessible opportunities for children and young people to discuss the conflict in shared and safe spaces?
How can we achieve integration in all walks of life, from education to sport to shared housing, so the peace generation is not burdened by the experiences of those who came before them?
How do we change politics and politicians in a way that demonstrate and confirm a post conflict attitude with a post conflict agenda?
We think the challenges set out above should form part of any recommendations to emerge from the Haass process.
So while we refer to the past there also needs to be an emphasis on the present and the future.
With this in mind there is a need that the current process allows for children and young people to bring to the discussions their perspectives framed and shaped by their thinking and words.
They are the future. Let us hear what they have to say.