Northern Ireland: Recruiting Tools

Scott P. Harris, for the Pulitzer Center

Murals 1

To understand what life is like for teenagers growing up in modern day Belfast, you have to start with the images they pass everyday. Belfast is famous for it's murals, intricate artwork painted on the sides of buildings all over town, the vast majority of which commemorate the different paramilitary groups that fought in the Troubles, both Republican and Loyalist.

They've become quite popular tourists attractions, but imagine what it must be like for impressionable kids to constantly be bombarded with murals glorifying terrorists. While some feature nameless men in ski masks armed with AK-47s, others memorialize specific heroes who died during the Troubles. If you were growing up in East Belfast, everyday you could walk in the shadow of a portrait of a murdered cousin or uncle.

Murals 2

Today I met an American gentleman who married an Irish-woman and has lived in a Republican neighborhood with their three kids for the last 8 years. Among other things he told me that he thought the murals brainwash the youths into thinking that the paramilitaries are heroes. This gentleman, who didn't want his name used, is desperate to move his kids to the States before they become teenagers because he is afraid of how this city could warp them. He described last month's murders as a "recruiting drive" by dissidents wanting to impress teenagers.

Crime is a universal truth in every city in the world but it seems to me that Belfast is unique in that it has a ready made framework set up to lead the city's youth down the wrong path, using "the cause" to confuse them. While the vast majority of people here want peace, there is still a small faction that won't give up, and they are on the lookout for new recruits.

Murals 3

Artists work on a new Republican mural on The Falls Road. On the left, two flag draped coffins are carried by members of a paramilitary group.