Scared to death

Last week, Belfast's Ardoyne district was shocked by the double suicide of the teenage friends Anthony O'Neill and Barney Cairns. Their deaths highlight the plight of a lost generation, living in a community still riven by violence
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The Independent Online

There is no doubt in Patricia O'Neill's mind about what drove her youngest brother Anthony to kill himself in the tough, deprived north Belfast ghetto of Ardoyne, where he spent his short, 18-year life.

For her, the blame rests squarely with the bullies of the Irish National Liberation Army, who are the fag-end of a republican group that once menaced the security forces but now terrifies only the teenagers of Ardoyne. "Before the attack, Anthony was just a normal teenage boy, buying clothes and going out with his friends," she recalled. "He was generally happy, but after the beating he deteriorated. He was never the same."

The INLA "punishment" attack must have been particularly frightening, even if Anthony was, in his sister's words, no angel. Some months ago, an INLA gang stuffed him down a manhole and left him there for hours. Then they beat him.

Why pick on Anthony? "They said that he was involved in antisocial behaviour," Patricia explains. "One of the boys maybe stole a car or whatever, and he'd have been in the car. After the beating he got very depressed, very withdrawn. Basically, Anthony lived in fear. When he was in my house he was always looking over his shoulder. We had to lock all the doors to reassure him. Anthony hadn't done anything in months, because he was too paranoid to go out, but they still tortured him. One of the INLA would point at him, using his finger like a trigger."

Ardoyne is a densely populated district, where everybody knows, or knows of, everybody else. It is chronically overcrowded, but it is also bound together by a sense of having been under siege throughout the Troubles. The news of Anthony's suicide reverberated through the district, but it was followed by a further shock. Hours after his funeral, his friend Barney Cairns, also 18, committed suicide in the grounds of Ardoyne's Catholic church. He, too, had suffered at the hands of the INLA, who last year shot him in the legs.

Northern Ireland has hundreds, if not thousands, of young people who have been kneecapped by the paramilitaries and afterwards - on the surface, at least - just seem to get on with their lives. But the attack on Barney affected him deeply, his friends relating that it sent him into "a wee world of his own".

Ardoyne itself is really a world of its own. Perhaps no other district in Northern Ireland has experienced such intense violence over such a protracted period. Its convulsions began as far back as 1971, when scores of its houses were burnt out. The violence scarcely let up for decades.

More than 500 of all Troubles deaths happened in north Belfast, many of them in Ardoyne's narrow streets. Scores of its men went to prison for IRA offences during a fierce three-way war that involved republicans, loyalists and the Army. On the wall of the Sinn Fein office, in the heart of the district, are inscribed the names of more than 120 people killed here. The many soldiers who died are omitted: this litany includes only civilians and IRA members.

Barney's uncle, Brendan Bradley, is a reminder in human form of the scale of the death toll. Asked how many of his relatives have been killed in the Troubles, he softly replies: "Five." Bradley runs a group called Survivors of Trauma, helping to counsel those affected by the violence. The Troubles are supposed to be over, but their consequences linger on and, unlike other areas such as west Belfast, Ardoyne has not improved much.

"Loyalists and republicans and the security agencies took slices of my family," Bradley says, "and the Troubles are still picking away at the family. When you look at the number of people who have died in and around the area, you have the equivalent of 10 Omagh bombings [29 people died in that outrage]. But Ardoyne has not got the same help that people in Omagh did."

In the past month or so, Ardoyne has had a run of sheer misfortune. In addition to the suicides, an unusual number of local people have died of natural causes or in accidents. Three young men were killed in a car crash. "We've had 17 funerals in 19 days," Bradley says. "Even in the darkest days of the Troubles there weren't that many being affected, all at the same time."

In the immediate aftermath of the deaths, community workers and the North and West Belfast Health and Social Services Trust took emergency action. The area is now in effect on suicide alert. But this is not a new problem, and much official and community effort has gone into suicide prevention in recent years. Northern Ireland has a high suicide-rate compared to Britain, and north and west Belfast are regarded as particular black spots.

Phil McTaggart, whose son took his life last year, has since been working to prevent more tragedies. "People are afraid to ask their children if they are all right," he says. "A lot of the time young people just can't see a way out of their problems."

For years, the health trust has been highly active in this field, setting up a Suicide Task Group and appointing a suicide awareness co-ordinator. There have been advertising campaigns and other initiatives, but the trust says it needs more resources.

According to John McGeown of the trust, the majority of suicide victims are young men, but the phenomenon affects all classes and ages. Ardoyne has the extra dimension, however, of all those years of concentrated conflict. "Every suicide has its unique causal factors, and they are complex," McGeown says. "It is very difficult to say which is the primary one, or even what has tipped the balance from depression to despair." When he speaks of Ardoyne, he speaks of poverty, unemployment and low educational attainment, all exacerbated by the impact of conflict.

This view is reflected by Paul O'Hare of the Samaritans. "Our view is that suicide is never, ever caused by one factor - it's always a combination, and that will be unique to each individual." Callers to the Samaritans mention trauma, fear and distress due to the Troubles, O'Hare says, in addition to more universal problems, such as relationships and money.

Several years ago, Ardoyne was the scene of the intensely bitter Holy Cross dispute, with schoolgirls repeatedly having to run a gauntlet of loyalist protesters from the adjoining Protestant Glenbryn estate. That issue has now gone quiet, but it has left its mark. Neither is all well in the loyalist district; the authorities say that in the two months since Christmas, at least two Glenbryn people, and possibly three, have taken their own lives.

There is much enmity between Ardoyne and Glenbryn, symbolised in the "peace lines" that separate the areas. While their political and religious differences are sharp, they share an equality of misery. There are, however, vital demographic differences. While the local Protestant population is ageing and dwindling, Catholic Ardoyne teems with kids; at four o'clock in the afternoon, thousands mill around its streets.

"Listen," says one resident, "at four in the morning some of them are still out there. You'll still see kids, 15 to 19, out at that time, boozed up. In the summer, behind the houses, you'd think they were having some sort of festival. There's dozens of them."

The constant refrain of local teenagers is that they have nothing to do, nowhere to go, once they outgrow the youth club at the age of 15 and before they are old enough to get into the drinking clubs. Some of these teenagers are what a woman at a recent neighbourhood meeting described as "the wee boys nobody wants to touch".

The meeting heard a plea from Gerard McGuigan of Sinn Fein, who declared: "They're not all angels - but who here is an angel? Let's show these people that they're worth something, even if it's only saying hello when you walk by them. We have to start by saying, 'You belong to us, you're part of us.'"

Education is a problem. A lot of the young people leave school with no qualifications, and locals complain that they are then sent on training schemes rather than getting real jobs. Some families move out of the area, but that can bring its own problems. Loyalists have shot at former Ardoyne residents, killing a Protestant teenager in the mistaken belief that he was a Catholic. They were taking violent exception to the fact that Catholics from Ardoyne and elsewhere were moving into their areas. Just last week, loyalists from Glenbryn attacked Catholic homes next to Ardoyne with petrol bombs and paint bombs in an attempt to stop Catholics moving in. One of the victims, a 105-year-old woman, was showered with glass.

Ardoyne is presently a depressed area in all senses of the word. As parish priest Father Aidan Troy put it: "It's like a black pall has come down over the place." It is easy to find people who express a sense of bleak cheerlessness, like the resident who said: "Here, it's just a dead-end street. These funerals have been heartbreaking, just heartbreaking."

At the moment, those working in this damaged district are simply getting through one day at a time. But it will clearly take concerted efforts to deal with the suicide issue and other deep-seated problems. There is much work to be done to convince the thousands of youngsters like Anthony and Barney that they can have lives worth living.

Yet some sparks of optimism are visible. Niki Griffin, a young woman who works with local youths, simply refuses to be downcast. "There is a lot of community cohesiveness here, a lot of family support. These kids are very artistic in their own way - we need to find out what makes them buzz, makes them glow."