Charities call for children's commissioner

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The Independent Online
WHEN Dusty Spence was the commander of the Loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force prisoners in the Maze, a new inmate was sent to his wing. He had been found guilty of shooting two people in the head. He was still wearing his school blazer.

It is one of the more extreme examples of where youth and laughter went in the past 30 years of Northern Ireland Troubles.

Hundreds were traumatised, many for the rest of their lives. A huge number experienced violence themselves or through their families. Two hundred and fifty seven young people under the age of 18 were killed.

It is against this grim background that the welfare agencies Save The Children, Barnado's and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children yesterday called for the appointment of a commissioner for children in Northern Ireland.

The charities said: "Children have lived with the brutalising effects of the militarisation of their communities and have been harassed and abused by both paramilitary organisations and security forces."

Boys and girls have seen their fathers and mothers executed by masked gunmen in their homes, people killed and mutilated in bomb explosions, teachers shot in classrooms, homes firebombed, school buses hijacked and set on fire.

In addition, children themselves have been recruited by the paramilitaries and taken part in terrorist acts.

A study by the University of Ulster showed that one in five children aged between 10 and 11 had been near a bomb explosion and one in five had had a friend or relation killed.

In areas where paramilitaries have been particularly active, nine out of ten schoolchildren had seen hijacked vehicles set on fire, and five out of ten had witnessed a shooting.

Several other studies have shown that, as was to be expected, constant exposure to violence had led to depression, acute anxiety, neurosis and aggression.

Yet, Marie Smyth, director of the University of Ulster's Cause of the Trouble study, points out that there are just six dedicated psychiatric beds for adolescents in the entire region.

Ms Smyth, whose 18-month research project formed the basis of the charities' appeal yesterday, said: "The resources for dealing with children's psychological problems are woefully inadequate and the issue cries out for a lot more to be done.

The charities said that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, had been very sympathetic and they hope that she will back their call for a commissioner.

Together, they have organised a conference, which started in Belfast yesterday, where children from across the European Union have met with the children of Ulster for a series of discussions and seminars.

The areas on the edges of Belfast's sectarian divide have seen some of the worst of the violence, and it still goes on.

Michael, 14, was born and grew up in Andersonstown. He has a brother serving a prison sentence for republican paramilitary-connected offences.

He said: "We all like to think it's going to get better, but you can never be too sure. My mam cries a lot about my brother being inside, and I feel sad as well because we were very close.

"If you grow up around here you see bombs, you see cars being set on fire. You may get used to it, but it's no way to live."

Emma Carpenter, 17, a Protestant of north Belfast, said: "Of course kids are going to have psychological problems growing up here. My little brother used to get very scared at the sounds of bombs going off and wet the bed."

"But perhaps if we have peace we'll learn to forget all this. People tend to forget the bad things in life."

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