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)