Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo April 23, 2009

Northern Ireland: The Scenery

Media file: 769.jpg

In talking about the Real IRA, the splinter group that took responsibility for the March 7 attack on...


Scott P. Harris, for the Pulitzer Center

I spoke to a youth worker on Monday who asked me how long I planned to stay in Belfast. About two weeks I said, but I would stay as long as I needed in order to gain an understanding of the situation here. He said if that was the case I'd never leave, as "the longer you spend trying to understand it, the more complicated it will become." I'm starting to see what he means.

Yesterday I wrote about Jake Kane, a former UVF volunteer who now works as a community organizer. I was a little mistrusting of him simply because he tried too hard to paint his community as being perfectly safe. He talked about how the ex-prisoners on the ground work hard to keep the kids on the straight and narrow, and only alluded to how they dealt with criminality.

The paramilitaries, on both sides, have a long history of policing their own communities. One thing several youth workers have told me is that in the old days the paramilitaries were at least good for keeping drugs out of the neighborhoods (even if now some of them have turned to selling drugs.) Primarily they were known for "punishment beatings." If you broke the law they didn't call the police, they would show up and teach you a lesson.

Today, while walking in the Shankill, about two blocks from Jake's house, I met a teenage boy who talked with me about the punishment beatings. We spoke for an hour and he answered all of my questions, but he refused to appear on camera. One of his uncles is a leader with the UDA (another loyalist paramilitary group) and "runs the neighborhood." Even though the interview would only appear on American TV, he was too afraid of the repercussions of what he'd say. Among other things he told me I couldn't trust the paramilitaries. He spoke of punishment beatings gone too far, just last week, he said, the UDA caught up with a kid in the neighborhood they believe set a fire, and they broke his neck. He didn't die, but he may never walk. I've searched the Belfast papers, and I can't find any mention of it. While most of the youth workers tell me that the younger generation has put the troubles behind them, in this part of town, the teen says that just isn't true. He lives a hundred yards from a peace line, and he says he's never crossed it, and he never would. Just walking down the street they would be able to tell he's not Catholic, and it wouldn't be safe. He added that he didn't hate Catholics, and I asked if he wanted to get along with them and he simply said, "I can't be bothered." He's resigned himself that Catholics and Protestants in this part of town will never get along.

I want to paint an accurate picture of life in modern Belfast, specifically life along the peace lines, but it is quite hard with so many conflicting stories. People talk about how the paramilitaries have turned to selling drugs, but it is always the other group that does the selling, never the group the person speaking is somehow associated with. It is also quite hard because people here are so accustomed to the situation that it seems normal to them, and therefore it is hard to gauge what is a serious problem and what isn't. Several people have spoken to me about "recreational rioting," in which during the long summer nights, 20-60 teenagers will gather along the peace lines and lob bricks and petrol bombs at each other just for fun. They don't even do it for political reasons, they just do it simply because it's what they've grown up seeing others do. And while I'm told the paramilitaries on both sides try to stop it from flaring out of control, I'm still disturbed by the matter of fact way they talk about it.

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues