This blog examines some of the problems associated with West Belfast, the IRA’s role, and the resultant legacy that comes with deflection of responsibility.
Jobs for the boys and girls
In the early days in West Belfast, it was a necessity to set up innovative Community Groups. In the absence of adequate internal funding, or state investment, people had to find alternative ways of empowering communities in order to change their lives for the better. Projects like the co-ops, Springhill Community House, the knitting factories, all served to both bring in much needed resources, at a time when the community was straining, and to create community cohesion. For the most part, these centres were run for the people, by the people, and they did provide positive access to areas such as education etc.
However, with the influx of funding, the IRA quickly saw an opportunity. The republican movement knew it needed the support of the people. So, from the 80’s onwards, it developed a strategy where it would slowly take over the Community Sector in West Belfast, therefore ensuring both control and support in equal measures. So, it set up residents groups, it swamped AGM’S in order to ensure its people were voted into strategic positions, and it shut down dissent while all the time building its own community base. Money was an added bonus. Much needed funding was diverted off to IRA coffers in some instances, ensuring that the real people within the community, who most needed the services, often did not benefit from them.
In one case, a community centre on the outskirts of West Belfast was found, after investigation to have “misappropriated funds”, and the funders subsequently withdrew support, ensuring that one particular area was left with skeleton community facilities. Other Government schemes, such as ACE, were manipulated and fraud was committed, and as long as timesheets were all signed off in certain places, no one was any the wiser. And if they were, they weren’t saying anything.
The process of employing people in some centres was also a revelation. Job Descriptions were drawn up with certain people in mind, questions in some instances were selectively given out before interview, in one case, a community centre in West Belfast was legally challenged after going through the interview process. It later transpired that a less qualified candidate had been selected for a post that they had been assured they would get. The excuse? Job scores had been “added up wrongly.”
People were strategically placed into jobs in many instances, not on the basis of experience or merit, but simply because they were deemed to be “on message”. One influential republican smiled at me when I raised this practice over dinner one night. “There’s a difference between headhunting someone and boxing someone off”, she said. I failed to see the difference.
1998 was a watershed moment in West Belfast’s Community job allocation. Scores of prisoners were released under the GFA. Some of them were lucky enough to walk into well paid jobs. Some republicans used those well paid jobs to draw a wage, and simultaneously use thosepositions to further their republican activities. One republican ex prisoner spent their time employed on a respectable wage as a Community Development Worker, yet the time spent on the job was not on Community Development, but on attending meetings on a regular basis for the republican movement.
“The Community” was never developed to its full potential, and problems within West Belfast have become worse, yet there is one particular political movement who have benefited greatly from the amount of hours and personnel spent on furthering its aims – many of which came at a cost to the public purse.
Other community workers do sterling work, and I don’t wish to tar all with the one brush, but a cursory glance at some personnel in some centres would tell you who is running the show in any area. The hypocrisy of republicans to call for more investment in these areas, and to complain about under resourcing, when many of resources already allocated have been syphoned away from the people who need it most, is staggering.
In short, in many instances, people bent and broke the law. Not for the cause of Irish Freedom, which is an argument for another day, but because it benefitted individuals, and a collective of individuals – and they used the cover of “republicanism” to do so. From every angle. And then they complained to anyone who would listen about why they needed more resources to tackle lawlessness on the streets.
So, let’s look at crime in West Belfast. Lawlessness abounds. It has the highest overall crime rate, and highest level of violent crime including burglary, theft, criminal damage, and anti-social behaviour per head of population than any other constituency in Northern Ireland. Of course, republicans would have us believe that this is largely due to a lack of policing in the area over the years. And they’d be right. But, who made it a “no-go” area for policing? Who told their constituency not to deal with the police? Here’s a quote from Gerry Adams, then MP for the area in 1996. “The RUC are completely unacceptable”. Gerry, of course is not responsible on his own for West Belfast’s crime rate. But, he must shoulder some responsibility for the message that he sent, and which others parroted, which meant that members from within his own community were effectively denied the normal route of justice that people living in policed communities have. He also bears, or should bear a responsibility as someone who was serving MP in the area for many years.
In the late 90’s, the republican community started discussions to pilot a new project around alternative ways of justice. Community Restorative Justice was born. It was not entirely acceptable to the community who were target groups at that time, largely due to some of the personnel who were behind it. In some instances, the very same people who had administered “civil administration” in areas, were the people who the community was expected to deal with. Criminals talking to criminals to tell them to stop their criminal behaviour. You really couldn’t make this stuff up.
Of course, people in a large number of cases were badly treated by the RUC. This writer would not deny that for a second. It happened. However, republicans must take responsibility for their part – a large part – in ensuring that ghetto like areas – with skewed views on crime and law and order became so out of control that the legacy of lawlessness will thrive for generations to come. Republicans created their own genie that exploded out of the lamp, and no matter how hard they try now, is proving next to impossible to disappear. The only puffs of smoke to be seen, are the burnt out wreckages of cars in places like Divis, where, children as young as seven can be seen taking their turn at doing doughnuts in the grounds of St Peters.
Armed robbery, racketeering, assaults, rape – all swept under the carpet for years in pursuit of an idealised romanticised agenda, which served no purpose except to further send out the most irresponsible message to younger generations as they came through. And, the cycle continues. Policing in part does exist now, but West Belfast has a long way to go to reduce the most serious of crime statistics – and sustain a reduction for any length of time.
According to NINUS, 2010, West Belfast has the lowest life expectancy rate, and the second highest rate of death and suicide. It also has the highest birth rate, and the highest disability rate. It has the highest proportion of post primary pupils with special needs statements. The highest number claiming unemployment benefits. 82.7%of this population are Catholic. While the same problems undoubtedly affect Loyalist Areas, this writer is focusing on West Belfast – most of which was under the control of republican paramilitaries.
Contributing factors are obvious. The high levels of drink and drugs available. West Belfast is awash with bars and bookies and off licences and GP Surgeries. During and after the conflict, many people were prescribed ether anti-depressants or valium. Weary people, sick of living on their nerves. Existing, rather than living is probably a more accurate description. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder statistics are through the roof as a result of the conflict. Death is glorified in most housing estates, where you can see wall murals or memorial gardens commemorating dead IRA volunteers. Fighting for Ireland was and is seen by many as noble and brave, martyrs eulogised and turned into heroes. Status, power and control are big factors to life in West Belfast. Is it any wonder groups of young people band together creating mayhem and destruction to those around them in pursuit of a feeling of status amongst their peers; when they see generations gone before them attain it by joining their own illegal band of brothers and sisters?
A web of so called community cohesion was spun, and while the IRA’s public message was very much the “fighting for Ireland mantra”, the reality was very different in West Belfast. The IRA neglected the very people they publicly said they were trying to protect and defend.
There can be no form of control greater than that exerted internally over communities. Those who complained about being oppressed ultimately became the oppressor, and those who were discriminated against masterfully practiced the art of discrimination. And ordinary people suffered as a result. Good people. People who deserve better. People who were vilified collectively, labelled “savages” and “animals”, people who were, and who were not republican minded, all paying a heavy price now for the neglect which their community suffered while the IRA furthered its own aims.
Both the British and Irish Governments rightfully should be held to account for their responsibilities during the conflict. Likewise, Loyalist Paramilitaries up to their necks in criminality must shoulder their share of the blame for the fear in which they instilled throughout the community while they murdered with impunity, in many cases aided and abetted by those in positions of power.
But in this constituency – in West Belfast, Gerry Adams’ own back yard, the IRA should be held responsible for their deflection of responsibility – while blaming everyone else for its ills.
I’m guilty of it too. I used to blame the Brits for things also, while conveniently staying silent on matters closer to home. People do it all the time. “Dead Irishmen and Women?” It’s the Brits fault. “No employment prospects” Those pesky Brits are at it again. “Not enough sugar in the morning coffee?” Damn those Brits!
That type of thinking will only get you so far. It’s clearly ridiculous, and at some point people will individually and collectively have to take responsibility and stop blaming everybody else. Chose to join the IRA? That’s a choice you made. Exploit workers on a building site? That’s your movements fault. Carve up a system of housing so that “yours” are looked after first and pocket the proceeds from dole drops? Armed robbery? Siphoning off community funds? That’s a choice you made and it’s your fault. Not only is it inherently wrong, but it’s criminal. And it’s criminal to keep repeating the mantra that it’s everybody else’s fault but yours. Because while that myth is continually peddled, there are people living in areas like Ross Street, or Whitecliff Parade, or Colin, Ait na Mona and other areas who are still suffering from the consequences.