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25 February 2002

Ulster lives out its Groundhog Day

Sectarian divisions are more deeply felt among Belfast's young people than among any other age group

By Johann Hari

A misty street corner, a grim housing estate. A group of hyperactive, giggly girls are skipping and yelling rhymes. They look six or seven. “Hello,” I say, as I stop to talk. “Can I ask if you have any friends who are Catholics?” A girl in an immense, bright red coat lets her rope fall limp. She looks confused. “Catholics?” “He means Fenians!” Her chubby friend is very pleased to have made the connection. “Oh, Fenians,” says the first girl in a matter-of-fact way, “they’re scum.”

Two miles and a world away: a Catholic part of Belfast. A little boy is running around the streets chattering to himself and shooting at imaginary enemies, like children everywhere. His bright yellow badge reads: “I’m 9 today!” I ask him what presents he received. “I have to wait for my mammy to come home tonight.” He adds that what he would like – but won’t get – is a “two-fifty”. I don’t know what that is. “It’s a petrol bomb, stupid!” He laughs and runs away.

The University of Ulster released a study late last year revealing that under-25s were the most sectarian group of all in Northern Ireland. In the survey of 1,800 homes, 88 per cent of this age group said they would not enter an area controlled by “the other side” at night, even by car; 58 per cent would never use the other side’s shops or leisure facilities, even in daylight. The statistics startle, but do not explain. Why do sectarian issues so preoccupy these young people?

Owen, a skinny 16-year-old Catholic lad with shaved head and the international hard-lad uniform of baggy white tracksuit and trainers, was furious when I met him. “The IRA came last night and pushed past me mammy and told me I have to stay out of the area for six months . . . I got into a bit of trouble a few months ago because they said I beat up a bloke in an alley – I never did it, I never did it – so they threw me out of the area for 24 hours. They let me back because I agreed to sign a contract saying I wouldn’t be antisocial no more. But now they say I’ve broken it because I was drinking on the street corner and the Provies [the Provisional IRA] said I was being antisocial and now they say I can’t come back for six months.”

There are strict rules on how to deal with his sort if they return. “The first time, I’d be escorted off the premises. The second time, I’d be kneecapped.” And the third time? “If you go back the third time, you’re stupid.” He mimes a gun being fired into his skull. All the lads at the Northern Ireland Youth Forum, a centre that gives young people a non-denominational place to hang out, agree that you don’t mess with the Provies. “They run this place,” they say. This runs deep in the psyche of young people in the province. I ask whether, if they went home tonight and found they had been burgled, they would approach the police. They laugh. One explains: “Course not; you’d go to the Provies. With the police, you have to mess around for ages, and even if they catch the bloke they don’t do anything. Nine times out of ten, if you’re burgled, you know who by. At least the Provies can go to him and get you justice straight away and get you your telly back, too.”

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Young Protestants say the same thing. In Strabane, for example, residents insist that “any drug dealers are just shot there and then by the IRA, so we don’t have drugs here at all”. In East Belfast, it is widely believed that the IRA uses “hoods” (young criminals) to run drugs; most are aged 15 or 16. The loyalist paramilitaries are more inclined to deal drugs directly. Both sides fund their “policing” activities largely through extortion, money-laundering and drug dealing.

Most young men admit that they have been tempted to join their own side’s Provies. John, a Protestant ex-soldier in his mid-twenties, describes how easy it is to become part of it. “If you hang around in the right pubs, talk to the right people, we all know how to do it . . . They’ll give you a job, ask you to stash something or deliver something . . . If you haven’t got any other kind of work [unemployment on the Falls Road and the Shankill Road stands at 70 per cent] it’s very tempting. You can live quite well. I know lads who’ve never done a day’s work in their life with nice cars and satellite dishes because of the Provos . . .

“The peace process hasn’t affected that kind of work at all, it’s all still there . . . A lot of kids get involved because they’re hoods – you know, they commit a few crimes, joyriding and that. And the groups will say to them, look, we can punish you, or you can make up for it by doing this job for us. That’s how a lot of my friends got roped in.”

There are clear tensions between young people and the de facto rulers of their estates. Owen thinks that the gangs are sowing the seeds of their own demise. “Now they’re not so much into blowing things up, they haven’t got anything better to do than harass us kids. Nobody I know’ll join them now. Everyone hates them.” The older lads disagree. “Every generation of hoods says that. They’ll come round.”

The young people in the Protestant community seemed even more disaffected, contrary to the standard, English, left-wing picture of oppressed Catholics held down by strong Protestants.

Yet people on both sides acknowledge that “young Catholics have a new stride in their step here”. Partly, this is because wealthier Protestants often simply leave and head for the mainland, while wealthier Catholics stick close to their old areas. And the traditionally Protestant jobs in Belfast, such as shipbuilding, have been falling away fast, leaving the men demoralised and unemployed.

“On top of all of this,” says David, a Protestant university student, “along comes Good Friday. So when you see people at Holy Cross [the besieged Catholic primary school] acting like nutters – and I condemn it, too – you have to bear in mind all of these factors.”

David Trimble spoke recently of how “some Protestant communities have allowed themselves to become marginalised”, and this resonates with the young. “We’ve made ourselves look like lunatics,” David says. “We need to change the whole way we describe our grievances.”

Protestant murals are filled with images of flags and great battles fought and won. They speak the language of supremacy and hate. Yet there are signs of a shift. One called for “Protestant civil rights” – which reflects the mindset of young Protestants far more accurately than the uncontrolled anger of the Holy Cross demonstrations.

It is hard for mainland British people to understand the depth of the sectarianism that young people here take for granted. The Protestant/ Catholic divide extends to every aspect of life in Belfast. One tiny example – of thousands – is that many black taxis wear either orange or green stickers, indicating which parts of town they are prepared to travel to. Young people here never question this. They are the children of the Troubles, and know no better. Almost every young person I spoke to said they did not know anything about the Troubles and that they really did not affect them – then went on to tell remarkable stories about how their lives have been disrupted, their parents threatened or jailed, their city bombed. They thought these stories were trivial, unimportant, everyday. Everyone over the age of 20 remembers being searched on entering one department store or another in town. They all grew up seeing armed gunmen on most street corners every day.

“The rifles were at the level of your head when you were about eight,” I am told. “I used to measure how old I was by where the rifles reached on my body.” When I look horrified, she shrugs. “Ach, that’s how it was. It was just funny.”

Speaking to young people in Belfast makes you realise that the Good Friday Agreement – remarkable though it is – is only one step along a very long road towards an integrated Northern Ireland. Good Friday has dealt only with the political superstructure of the Troubles. It has prevented the more explicit, “political” violence (and saved many lives in the process). But in order to perform this juggling act, it has had to entrench sectarianism at the heart of democracy: the Northern Ireland Assembly, when it votes, must have a majority from both communities. This makes it even harder to introduce integrated schools, which most thoughtful teenagers and young adults in the province believe are a prerequisite for dealing with the underlying causes of division.

The extraordinary message that comes across loudly and repeatedly is that young people here know nobody from the other side. The students I spoke to said they had met people from different religious backgrounds only when they entered university. One said: “I used to wonder if Catholics had special tags or something. I wondered what they talked like while I was growing up, because you’d never see them in your area.” Another said: “When I was 14, my youth club teamed up with a Protestant youth club from the other side of the city for a holiday, deliberately, like. And when we met them, it was like, oh, so you’re normal. And I even fancied one! I didn’t know that could happen.”

Nine out of ten children are educated in non-integrated schools. The Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, run by Dr Ian Paisley, which espouses a virulently anti-Catholic prejudice, is in charge of seven schools. It claims that “every lesson” is informed by the Bible. But the Northern Ireland Assembly will not integrate schooling. Powerful forces on both sides of the divide would resist violently.

“My god, if they tried to integrate the schools, the whole place would go mental!” one girl told me. Yet perhaps forced busing – physically taking all children to mixed schools – is the only solution. Even courageous politicians such as Mo Mowlam, who passionately defends integrated schooling, have stopped short of this, but what alternative is there? Young people in Northern Ireland deserve better than to live out some horrific version of Groundhog Day, damned to fight their grandparents’ war into infinity.

When the young people are given non-sectarian options, they leap at them. Sport has long been divided along religious lines, but when the new Odyssey Centre opened its indoor ice rink in December 2000, it was to play host to a non-sectarian ice hockey team – the Belfast Giants. The Giants have a huge following, and tickets to their games sell out months in advance. The popularity of deliberately anti- religious heavy metal music also suggests a desire among the young to embrace the non-sectarian life. More metalheads hang around Belfast city centre at the weekend than in any other British city.

As one 15-year-old girl with a nose ring put it: “It’s a way of saying, ‘Screw you, we’re not playing this stupid game any more’.”

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