“I got into politics by accident,” explains Lauren Bond, a 16-year-old who serves as youth MP for North Antrim at the UK Youth Parliament and was accepted to the first intake of the Northern Ireland Youth Assembly in 2021. “I remember being asked during the assembly’s first session which political party I supported. I couldn’t list a single one. I had no notions of politics, but the assembly was such an inspiring and safe space that I loved it.” She quickly brought herself up to speed, teaching herself about local politics and history. “Getting involved in politics has opened my eyes to the fact that it can be a force for good.”
Like many young people in Northern Ireland today, Bond’s early experience of politics was that it should be avoided, even in conversation: a stigmatised subject. “The lack of discussion around politics is extremely confusing for young people,” Bond says. “You simply don’t talk about it where I’m from.”
It has been her involvement in the assembly and parliament that has allowed the young MP to work with others who are looking for ideas on how to move beyond the divisions of old. This has been especially useful during her education since 93 per cent of the province’s state schools are still split along religious/ethnic lines. “Passed down from one generation to another, orange [Protestant] and green [Catholic] divides still sadly exist so even in school, sectarianism is present,” she says. “This was something that really upset me when I first went to secondary school. I couldn’t understand it. I felt very isolated. I wanted to know if I was the only one who thought it was unacceptable that you couldn’t have a conversation with each other and share your views. I come from a mixed family, so it’s never been difficult for me. But had I not got involved with the youth parliament, then I’d still be Lauren from North Antrim who feels a certain way because my friends and family feel that way: not a person in my own right, with my own views, who doesn’t identify with a colour or party.”
Similarly, Bond had to teach herself about another subject that she quickly became fascinated with when embarking on her GCSEs, as she describes: “When the Easter riots broke out in 2021, I didn’t learn about them from the news but from Instagram and Snapchat stories. This made me curious about why they were happening. I wanted to learn more about our history and took a GCSE in the subject. However, since that course focused solely on economic policies and declarations, I left with more questions than answers.”
To fill in the gaps, Bond spent a whole summer reading every book and watching every documentary she could on Northern Ireland’s history, including the years known as the Troubles. She tried to understand what the streets of Belfast would have felt like prior to 1998’s Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and to learn more about the scars that still inform so much of society around her today. While she appreciates the instinct to turn away from the damage and trauma of the past – and the very real fears of reigniting violence – she sees things differently: “There would have been very difficult conversations around the signing of the GFA, but we’re not going to push it forward and reach its full potential unless we keep having those difficult conversations. I don’t think you can pretend it didn’t happen. By brushing it under the carpet, we’re preventing any progress being made.” This is one of the reasons she has been campaigning for the history curriculum to be reviewed and the Troubles taught as a mandatory subject, so that children are not held ransom to a past they know nothing about.
As a young person who was born almost ten years after the GFA’s signing, Bond has largely grown up without a functioning government. Until she got involved in politics and met ministers and members of the legislative assembly, she was not convinced her future would remain in Northern Ireland, expecting instead to leave like many of her peers, contributing to the “brain drain”. In attending political events, however, she gained the sense of a community that genuinely cared about the future of Northern Ireland and were driven to create economic, social and political opportunities. Bond also believes that a greater understanding of the events relating to the GFA would underline the importance of learning to work together – beyond difference.
Reviving the Spirit of the GFA
“I don’t think I’m here because of a 30-page document,” Bond observes. “Peace cannot be bound up in a single document. It’s so much more than just words on paper and it’s important we remember that. It’s about our attitude, how we treat others and how we see people who disagree with us. That’s the main message of the GFA: even though there will always be a range of views in Northern Ireland, we can overcome them to work together and achieve both unity and diversity.” For Bond, the fact the GFA has not been fully implemented or reached its full potential is a source of disappointment: “People risked everything in 1998 – they put aside their differences to have extremely tough conversations and fight for our future. I’d love to see that energy and passion being revived. Instead, it’s like we started a sprint to the top of a hill, ran out of steam halfway up and settled for not finishing.”
Despite the hostility she faces for being a young woman in politics, she is keen to get as many of her peers involved as possible. She would also like to see the information gaps around the role of women in peace-making 25 years ago being addressed. “I knew that they had played an important role in bringing communities along as part of the GFA peace process, but it was hard to properly learn about their contribution,” explains Bond. “With this in mind, I think we need to open more doors to young women today as peacebuilders of the future.”
What else would Bond like to see? “Greater engagement from our current political leaders on moving the peace process forward,” responds Bond. “And an understanding from communities that there’s much to lose if people don’t respect it and fight to improve the status quo.” In the meantime, it is clear that Northern Ireland has a promising peacemaker of the future in Bond.