'Ten-pound touts' bring new terror to Belfast's streets

Support group campaigns for tougher jail sentences as hit-and-run accidents become leading cause of death in west Belfast
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The latest person to be killed by the joyriders was buried in west Belfast last week, with yet another shocked and traumatised family bidding farewell to a young man they described as "the perfect son".

The latest person to be killed by the joyriders was buried in west Belfast last week, with yet another shocked and traumatised family bidding farewell to a young man they described as "the perfect son".

Kieran Conlon's death followed an all too familiar pat-tern: the 21-year-old had just left a nightclub early on Sunday when the car struck him. The priest at the funeral said his parents thought of him as "a good, quiet and loving son, the true big brother who was always looking out for his sisters".

So many people have been killed through joyriding that it is thought to have overtaken the Troubles as a cause of death among young Catholics. Now a support group has been set up, Families Bereaved Through Car Crime, which is campaigning for tougher jail sentences and more education and preventive work.

More than a dozen people have died in incidents involving stolen vehicles since 1998. The histories of those involved graphically illustrate why the issue is regarded as one of the worst problems in west Belfast.

One couple lost their teenage daughter, who was mown down in March. Three women lost sons, and another lost a daughter, who had been six months pregnant when she was killed. One man lost his wife and eight-year-old son.

Other fatalities include a police officer trying to stop a speeding car. Several joyriders have been killed when their stolen vehicles lost control. Others have committed suicide. The group calculates that in addition to the actual deaths, more than 1,000 people have been left "devastated by car thieves, living with loss of limbs, disabilities and trauma". Most use the term "joyriding" though the term could not be more of a misnomer, given the misery it inflicts.

When the support organisation was formed and compared notes it discovered that some hard-core joyriders had been involved in more than one death. It also found that joyriders had often taunted bereaved families, driving stolen cars through hedges and railings into their gardens, insulting them and trying to disrupt a recent protest.

A community activist said: "Most of them are on drugs and drink, and glue is a big thing. Everybody knows that on a nightly basis the same repeat offenders are out destroying, burgling, stealing cars, joyriding. Then they go home and sleep all day and they're out the following night again.

"Beating and shooting them doesn't work. Half of the ones we work with have already been beaten or shot, some maybe three times. As soon as they're better they're at it again. Some of them have the idea its like a badge or whatever, it gives them status in their own fraternity. A lot of them, once they get to 21, 22, they settle down and get a job and stop. But from 13 up to 20 they can cause carnage."

With some joyriders racking up more than 100 convictions, many people say sentences are too short and bail is granted too freely. In west Belfast, the suspicion is rife that some joyriders are "10-pound touts", some locals accusing police of going easy on some of those involved in exchange for information on republicans and criminals. Police deny this.

The support group is contacting politicians and others and advocating longer sentences. It plans a rally in Belfast city centre this month.

And another group of women also affected by joyriding has come into being more discreetly. These are the mothers who cannot get their sons to stop joyriding. A community worker said: "There's a perception that the families of joyriders don't care, but the ones we've been working with are the best families in the world. They're at their wits' end. They don't know what to do with their young ones. One father told us he chained his son to the radiator and beat him stupid, but it didn't work.

"These are good people. They're just totally ashamed that their sons are involved in something like this."