Ulster Lives out It's Groundhog Day: Sectarian Divisions Are More Deeply at among Belfast's Young People Than among Any Other Age Group, as Johan Hari Found When He Talked to Them
Hari, Johann, New Statesman (1996)
Amisty 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 hangout, 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."
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. …