David McKittrick: Belfast: a city of alienated youth

Loyalist figures who were gangsters have been adopted as role models

Saturday 20 June 2009 00:00 BST

A fair bit of low-level racism was in the air in Belfast this week as Romanian families were evacuated from the backstreets to refuges of temporary safety across the city. Most of the racism was not at all violent. A caller to a radio phone-in, insisting she was not intolerant in any way, took pained exception to the fact that many immigrants had arrived without good English.

Another protested that Romanians and others took jobs which were properly the preserve of locals. Another's complaint was exactly the opposite: foreigners would not work, he insisted, instead living off state benefits.

The expression of such urban myths is of course not confined to Northern Ireland, being familiar in many countries across the world. Such attitudes may be regrettable but they are not actually violent. But, Belfast being Belfast, the difference is that there is a level of society which all too readily resorts to bricks and bottles.

This can be explained partly by history, partly by geography and partly by deep-seated xenophobia. Added together, they can form a combustible mix which can send stones flying through windows.

The missiles are hurled by members of a Belfast underclass which has proved pretty much immune to the peace process, to any social and economic advances in recent times, and indeed to much of the modern world. There were almost 1,000 racist incidents last year. Many of these involved Catholics, but most were the work of Protestants and loyalists. One reason for this is that migrants tend to cluster in low-rent inner-city neighbourhoods. Many of these happen to be in or close to tough loyalist districts.

Police have yet to charge anyone in connection with the attacks on Romanians in south Belfast, but the local geography strongly indicates that young Protestants were to blame.

A loyalist councillor this week referred to those responsible as "this small, ignorant, poorly educated minority who just want to go out there and cause trouble – they are racist from the backbone out". These young people are alienated on so many levels: unsocialised, barely educated and usually unemployed, they are prey to drink and drugs, vulnerable to a sense of excitement generated by neo-Nazi websites.

Some of these areas are dreadful. Some of the houses are falling apart; overall health is poor; in some families unemployment has been the norm for generations. Community workers wince as they tell of violence in the home, of children with absent or unknown fathers, of women with multiple children by various fathers. Conditions such as these are not unknown in many British cities. But Belfast has an extra layer of misery in the legacy of paramilitarism, with its violence, its lawlessness, its long spells in prison. In the decades of troubles, the most deprived districts were the most prone to paramilitarism, experiencing and inflicting the highest levels of violence.

Today, underground loyalist groups are less and less active, and indeed have begun shedding their weapons. But kids still see paramilitary veterans strutting about their districts, noticing their status and their sometimes expensive lifestyles. Many loyalist figures were not just killers but also gangsters, ostentatiously sporting chunky jewellery, revving around in 4x4s, holidaying in Dubai. Sadly but inevitably, some kids adopt them as role models, admiring them as men of power and stature. One small boy, asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, replied: "An ex-prisoner."

Education provides a ladder out of the ghetto for only a few. In the middle-class part of south Belfast, affluent Malone, nine out of 10 children get to grammar school. In working-class Sandy Row, just down the road, only one child in seven makes it.

Some working-class schools make heroic efforts, but others have a continuous struggle simply to maintain some semblance of order. An ex-teacher said yesterday: "I got out of the system because I felt there wasn't any education going on. I felt like a policeman rather than a teacher."

This failure of the system means that, in the most deprived areas, many youths and men who roam the backstreets have no qualifications whatever, with illiteracy a serious problem. Major improvements are being made in housing under, ironically, a Catholic minister, Margaret Ritchie, who has taken a personal interest in loyalist south Belfast. But education is not working.

Another dimension of alienation comes from the almost complete disconnect with the world of politics, for many in the mean streets do not identify with the unionist parties or, indeed, with the British Government.

As for Catholics, loyalist youths want nothing to do with them, apart from occasional encounters when insults and stones are traded.

The peace process may be reducing violence, but it has brought no peace dividend to disaffected loyalist youths. It has not brought large numbers of new jobs; even if it did, many teenagers have no experience in the world of work. Instead, the sight of Catholics in jobs, and in government and in the reformed police service, merely seems to confirm the truth of the disgruntled loyalist ghetto cliché that "Catholics get everything, we get nothing".

Another cliché, now little heard, was of "Catholic alienation". The phrase has fallen into disuse because Sinn Fein is now in government and discrimination against Catholics is rare. The old sense of grievance is reversed: today's alienation is mainly Protestant. The vast majority of the Protestant working class is decent and non-violent, but in the ghettos the sense of estrangement runs deep. A Church of Ireland bishop said flatly: "People in working-class Protestant, unionist and loyalist areas feel seriously disadvantaged, alienated and isolated from the political process."

This sense of angst filters down to this generation of lost youth. And when strangers appear, as the Romanians and others have in recent times, a small number react with hostility. Migrants come from the outside world, and they feel the whole world is against them. A small number of such youths have been getting their kicks from driving out the newcomers, doubtless feeling that for the first time in their lives they have a chance to exercise some power.

This is at the most primitive level, the power of the brick, thrown by a few youths who live miserable lives and this week have been able to inflict much misery on others.

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