The crying game

In north Belfast, loyalist paramilitaries were once vigilantes fighting the IRA. Now they are crimin

Jack Clarke lives in Tiger's Bay in north Belfast. He is only nine but already he is on antidepressants and is seeing a psychiatrist. "It's for the dreams and the crying," says his mother, Alison, who is worried sick about her youngest son.

The dreams are about Jack's 16-year-old brother, Dean, and the crying is about him, too, because last year Dean killed himself. Jack's dreams also feature the man who drives up and down his street and smiles at him, because he is the man who sold Dean the 22 tablets he took before he hanged himself.

The drug dealer is in the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), and the small Tiger's Bay enclave of red-brick terraces was, throughout the Northern Irish conflict, one of the loyalist paramilitary army's staunchest heartlands. It has lost its strut and swagger and its Union Jacks are tattered. However, one local minister estimates that about 80 per cent of the men in the area have been, or currently are, members. When people in "the Bay" talk about "the men", they mean the UDA.

The UDA started out in 1971 as a vigilante organisation. It claimed it was defending Ulster from the IRA, but specialised in the doorstep assassinations and drive-by shootings of Cath olic civilians. There is mounting evidence that British security forces colluded with its gangs. The UDA, which was banned in 1992, was responsible for 430 murders. It has always been riven with feuds and, following its ceasefire in 1994, many of its victims were loyalists.

A tentative foray into socialist politics was short-lived - the Ulster Democratic Party lacked persuasive leaders, and UDA men were soon back to supporting "the Big Man", Ian Paisley.

Killing machine

The UDA has survived as a criminal organisation, engaged in extortion, money laundering, armed robbery, prostitution and drug dealing. A local brigadier spent more than £800,000 over a recent two-year period on gambling and cars. Some of the money came from charity funds.

In 2006, police raided a north Belfast bar at which the UDA was preparing for a show of strength. A speech was to be read extolling the organisation as a "well-oiled ruthless killing machine" that would never go away. Jon Bon Jovi's "Blaze of Glory" was to be played, from the soundtrack of the film Young Guns 2.

Jack Clarke knows nothing of the history that left his family home in a tiny Protestant ghetto, with high, fortified fences - once called peacelines, now known as interfaces - separating it from neighbouring Catholic areas. He was born the year after the Good Friday Agreement was signed. The Troubles were all but over, though the violence lingered in and around Tiger's Bay.

His brother Dean was a typical teenager of the post-Troubles generation. Known as "wee Dean", he was a keen footballer whose social life included what has become known as "recreational rioting" along the interfaces. He rang one night to say he'd been "split open on the Limestone [Road]", and when his mother picked him up, she found he was drunk on cider.

Late last October, Dean took a massive dose of "blues", crude tranquillisers the UDA is willing to sell to any child who has the necessary 50p for a tablet. Alison says her son became aggressive, and, when she sent for his father, a Catholic, from whom she is separated, Dean pulled a knife on him. He kept breaking down and saying he wanted to be with his granny, who was dead.

He kept running off. Alison says when they finally got him to hospital she tried to persuade staff to keep him there, but he told them he wanted to leave to watch Liverpool on TV and they let him go. "So he came home, watched the match, went out for a Chinese and I never saw him again," she says. "Dean hanged himself on the railings on the Limestone Road."

Alison buried her eldest son, and then she denounced the UDA. "People are afraid to speak out," she says. "But when you lose your son, you say what you want." On Remembrance Day 2007, one of its so-called brigadiers told a gathering at a local memorial to the UDA "fallen" that the drug dealers had to go. "If you can't shoot them, shop them," he said, to the strains of the Carpenters singing "What the World Needs Now Is Love". According to Alison, though, "nothing has changed".

Young and foolish

There is a mural on a prominent wall in Tiger's Bay celebrating the prowess of the "young guns" of the UDA. At its centre is a painting of a boy in a white baseball cap. This is Glen Branagh, known as Spacer. Aged 16, he blew himself up on Remembrance Sunday in 2001 during a riot. As he raised his arm to throw a blast bomb across police lines at Catholic youths on the other side of the interface, the bomb exploded.

Spacer was a member of the UDA's youth wing, the Ulster Young Militants (UYM). "He was as game as a badger," recalls Billy, one of his friends from that time. "He would have taken on Goliath." Others say he was just young and impressionable.

The UDA put about the lie that the bomb had been thrown across the interface by the nationalist youths, and that Spacer had bravely caught it and was trying to dispose of it to save women and children when it exploded: that he was a martyr. Hundreds of UDA men attended his funeral. The boy's family have erected a simple plaque at the foot of the CCTV camera that now stands where he fell. The inscription speaks only of their love for him. Someone has thrown orange paint over it.

Billy, who was also in the riot that day, is 23 now. "I loved to riot," he says. "I lived to riot. We all did. We didn't know anything else. We started when we were eight or ten years old. I went to school, came home, did my paper round and went over to the Limestone Road. March to August was the season. It was mutual hatred. We wanted to kill them and they wanted to kill us. We were young, foolish. It was pointless."

He, too, was in the UYM. "It was harder not to get involved than to get involved," he says. "They'd give you money for things - punishing people, throwing blast bombs, acting as general dogsbodies. Then if you tried to leave, they'd demand it back."

Billy did leave, though. "I wish the UDA would hurry up and go away. They are making life miserable in this area. They are just out to make money. They have the young ones destroying the place." He drives a taxi now - though his car is giving trouble at the moment. He is a builder, but there is a slowdown in the building trade. He is palpably depressed. "There is nothing in this area for young people."

He says his parents support Paisley. He doesn't vote. He says the local MP, Nigel Dodds, who is minister for enterprise, trade and investment, does nothing for Tiger's Bay. "I wouldn't give the DUP the time of day," he says. "I am a Protestant and a unionist. I am what I am. I still hate republicans with a passion. I despise them. Sinn Fein shouldn't be in a British government. They are foreigners. But I'd go out with ordinary Catholics, good guys."

Urban saints

Young men from Tiger's Bay have traditionally joined the British army, and some of Billy's friends have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Some of them have made a decent go of it," he says. "I'm from an army family. My granda got the Burma Star and the Atlantic Star. My heart was set on joining at one time. But I wouldn't go and fight America's wars."

Davy Ferris is a youth worker at the First Step centre, run by the local Methodist church. He's helped out by volunteers, who call themselves the "urban saints". Interface rioting still goes on, sporadically, Davy says, but it is no longer fierce. He works closely with youth workers on the Catholic side of the interface to try to stop it, and neither the UDA nor the IRA now encourages it.

"The total hatred has gone," Davy says. "Now adays it is often about romance. Boys from here go over and nationalist girls come down. Then some of the nationalist boys come and say, 'What are you doing talking to our girls?' and a few stones are thrown. It's more about proving who's alpha. They are trying to engage in a social way, but violence is the only way they know." When Dean died, some of the many young people who went to his funeral were nationalists he had known from the interface.

Davy works hard at trying to give the young people he meets confidence. One of Dean's friends is a championship runner, he says. "But there is a lot of apathy." Stephen Nicholl, an Ulster Unionist councillor and manager of the Healthy Living Centre on Duncairn Gardens, agrees. "The key thing is trying to get young people to raise their sights," he says.

"The sense of hopelessness in Tiger's Bay has a tangible effect on health. The older people who lived through the Troubles had certain ways of coping, and the younger people have learned these as ways of dealing with ordinary day-to-day situations," he says. "A 16-year-old girl who breaks up with her boyfriend goes to the doctor for antidepressants. If the doctors stop providing the drugs, they get them on the black market." A minster spoke about the "Three Vs - violence, valium and vodka".

After the infamous Holy Cross affair in 2001, when loyalists from nearby Glenbryn picketed a Catholic primary school on the interface with Ardoyne, hurling abuse, blast bombs and bags filled with urine at four-year-old girls, a report into the needs of north Belfast was carried out. One of its key recommendations was that there should be "capacity" building, as well as significant investment. The Department for Social Development in Northern Ireland has been working on "community empowerment" schemes, but admits that it is hard to get the people of Tiger's Bay to engage. "You can't underestimate the difficulties," a spokeswoman says.

Nicholl says it is to do with low morale. "It is very fragmented - unionists fighting unionists. People with skills leave and don't come back. The nationalist areas around it are bursting at the seams and the Tiger's Bay people see Catholics moving into streets that were traditionally Protestant. People see themselves as being under siege and so they see change as threatening." Davy says there is an urgent need for more youth workers - but the budget for youth work across Northern Ireland has been slashed.

Anne Thompson, the principal of Currie Primary School, on the Limestone Road, says Tiger's Bay has imploded since the Troubles ended. "They feel they are a forgotten people," she says. "There is no sense of a common enemy any more, so they have turned on each other. Groups set up and then split into little cliques. There is a vacuum. In the past, young men were seen as the future protectors of their community, so there was no need for them to have an education. We don't send many children to grammar school, but we send ten times more girls than boys."

Parents in Tiger's Bay, many of them very young themselves, want a better future for the new generation, she says. She is trying hard to help them to see education as a way forward for the community. "We have a group for mums, and one for dads, and we are trying to get funds for a parent-and-child group. We encourage parents to play with their children, and to realise that play is learning. We try to show them that education isn't threatening." It is difficult, she admits. "They have so many other worries, not least the UDA."

At the youth centre, Davy shows me a photograph of Dean Clarke playing draughts with his friend Soup in the centre. "Soup was a great wee chess player," says Davy. Soup hanged himself a month after Dean. Davy shows me some of the memorial Bebo sites the teenagers have set up for their friends. He is worried by one entry we find. "Well Soup mate whats happinin? Speak to you soon when I come up there. Nyt nyt." Davy says he'll try to talk with the boy who posted it. "The kids in north Belfast are hurt, and we don't know how long that will last," he says.

Stephen Nicholl's project is focusing on the very youngest primary school children. "We are trying to teach them simple things," he says. "Like how to smile."

Susan McKay's book "Bear in Mind These Dead" is published by Faber & Faber on 5 June (£14.99)

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge