Northern Ireland’s Young People Are Leaving in Droves

And when they do, most don’t come back

Jonny McCormick
Sep 16, 2019 · 3 min read

I’m getting on my soapbox here — because, for Northern Ireland, this is an important issue. About 3000 of Northern Ireland’s population of talented, ambitious young people leave every year and don’t come back.

But we’re over the Troubles now. Sure, Northern Ireland is still dealing with the legacy of a decades-long conflict, but most people can agree we’re in better times. Things are a lot more stable and with that, there’s a lot more reason for hope. But, our young people are still leaving.

Early intervention and better guidance

I went to a good school in Northern Ireland. I was one of the lazier students, so perhaps I just didn’t take advantage of everything that was available. But, in the seven years I spent there, I don’t remember having one serious conversation about my career or future. And when I talk to peers, it was the same for them.

I hope this has changed but I fear it hasn’t. Many great organisations try to give young people the guidance and direction they need, but ultimately this needs to be available to all young people in schools. It’s the only place where you can be guaranteed to hit a critical mass.

A vibrant, engaging economy for people to return to

Emigration from the Republic of Ireland is well known. There is an Irish diaspora all over the world. But, in recent decades, the Republic of Ireland has worked hard to turn around the fortunes of their economy by attracting their young people back. In fact, whilst many still leave to pursue education of the early years of a career, most of those people return to the Republic and become contributors to the national economy.

In Northern Ireland, that’s not the case. And it could be. Northern Ireland has a comparatively low cost of living when compared to many parts of England, especially the South East. Whilst one would expect salaries to be lower, they’re so low that it’s hard to attract people back. If we consider, for example, the legal or accounting professions people at similar stages of their careers in London can earn anywhere between 3–4x as much. Even, Birmingham can pay almost double for similar professions.

It’s not just pay though, it’s the availability of high-quality jobs. This is a bit of a chicken and egg issue. People will only come back for high-quality jobs, and high-quality jobs will only be made available locally if there’s a suitably qualified talent pool to service them.

Either way, our political and business leaders need to do a better job to increase the quality of jobs in Northern Ireland.

Functioning, progressive political system

I’ve already written about the fact that Northern Ireland hasn’t had a functioning local Assembly for almost three years. In fact, when I moved back almost two years ago it was one of the biggest factors in my ‘con’ column. The political situation here is still very immature.

To attract people back to Northern Ireland, we need a functioning, stable, progressive political system. Without that, every other type of intervention will have a dampened impact. Fixing this is the foundation of any effort to turn around the brain drain and bring back the necessary talent to catapult our local economy.

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