Academic journal article Generations

The Politics of Age in Northern Ireland

Academic journal article Generations

The Politics of Age in Northern Ireland

Article excerpt

Northern Ireland is a small region of 1.8 million people within the United Kingdom, but whose politics have been shaped by nearly thirty years of conflict between Catholics who want to reunite Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and Protestants who want to maintain Ireland's union with Britain. A 1998 Peace Agreement brought an end to violence, established a new parliamentary Assembly and power-sharing executive, and introduced equality legislation. This was designed to prevent discrimination-especially between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists. Mainstream political discourse, social attitudes, even international relations have been shaped by this binary, which has made it difficult to recognize or forge other social movements. However, the years since the Agreement have seen economic modernization, the emergence of new (primarily class) interests, and a growing divide between rich and poor.

Significant among those on the wrong side of the bargain have been the poorest older adults- reflected in low incomes, an increasing reliance on (declining) welfare support, and a rise in winter deaths linked to lack of access to fuel for heat. The growing acknowledgement of new social divisions, the impact of demographic restructuring, and the solidarity of interests shaped by age, not religion, has opened an interesting space. From this space, it may be possible to reject an increasingly sterile politics of the past for new forms of advocacy around economic exclusion, ageism, and discrimination.

This article examines the emergence of politics around age and how the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) sector reorganized, campaigned, and formed new business models to create a better life for older people. It draws on research carried out by the Queen's University (Queen's University Belfast [QUB], 2004) in 2004, which showed that aging was a low political priority; routine discrimination, especially in healthcare, went unchallenged; and age, as an identity with rights as well as responsibilities, was not well formed. It then maps the shiftto a more progressive expression of aging using similar research published in 2014, which in particular evaluated the impact of investments made by The Atlantic Philanthropies (QUB, 2014). The foundation had invested in aging in the United States, Ireland, Vietnam, and South Africa, and places a particular emphasis on NGO performance, giving voice to older people, and tackling economic exclusion (O'Cleary, 2007).

The narrative focuses on the experiences of three strands of The Atlantic Philanthropies' work, including attempts to restructure the age sector and professionalize its approach; the centrality of research as an advocacy tactic; and the importance of the social economy in the delivery of services by and for older people. Not all strands were successful. The private sector still has no legal protection for discrimination against age, winter deaths from fuel poverty remain depressingly high, and loneliness in older adults presents enormous challenges to community groups (Kappes, Greve, and Hellmers, 2013). However, the shiftin skills, programs, and practices, the use of knowledge, mobilizing coalitions, and creating ethical business alternatives emerge as important lessons with implications for other organizations tackling the complex effects of demographic restructuring.

Advocacy and Ageism

Healey (2010) has written extensively on civic advocacy and suggested there has been too much emphasis on consultation at the expense of inclusive, participatory practices that put people at the heart of decision making. Such practices can descend into manipulative approaches that seek to co-opt objectors and fail to alter the power relations that exclude older people (Stewart, Browning, and Sims, 2014). Ultimately, empowerment means being able to exercise meaningful authority over decisions that affect their quality of life, as Irving (2015) said:

Self-empowered aging means taking control of one's life, learning, updating and improving skills, taking risks, building confidence, assuming power over personal circumstances, and developing the resilience to overcome inevitable challenges to come. …

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