Tis the season ... to be thuggish. And for decent people to be afraid. Belfast, revelling in its reputation, like Glasgow, of being a ‘hard' city, is not, if we’re honest, the most convivial of places.
At times, the menace envelopes our streets like a fog — particularly in the run-up to Christmas. Maybe we’re just so steeped in violence and boorishness that the merest hint of civil society lowering its guard is a green light to gangs.
Last Tuesday saw the now annual trouble at the switching on of the Christmas lights, with sectarian clashes between youths. Booze, crowds of law-abiding people to terrorise and a bit of council paid-for fun — yep, ideal conditions for our dark side to get stuck in.
The next day there’s the inevitable handwringing, but by 5pm Jim McDowell had been savagely beaten up at the City Hall.
Of course, some will yammer on about the riots being political, and that the attack on Jim — one of the most decent, kind and big-hearted men you could meet — is an occupational hazard of being editor of the fearless Sunday World.
But the rest of us will pause for a hollow laugh. Because we know these people get off on violence. Any old excuse will do.
Christmas is always a busy time for our street rats who will often use ‘bonhomie' as an excuse for their thuggery. And even at the level of everyday life in Belfast there's added menace. Things I know I’ll witness over the next few weeks include:
- People urinating in sidestreets off Royal Avenue
- People throwing up in sidestreets off Royal Avenue
- A drunk man will lurch out of nowhere asking for an insanely precise sum (£3.79 usually) as he's “lost his bus fare back to Downpatrick/Antrim/Bangor”.This request will be sinister in its surface politeness and apparent servility.
- A comatose accounts executive slumped in a doorway l Love's Young Dream screaming like furies as their Big Night Out goes hellishly wrong. “Do y'think I’m BLIND or summit? I know you fancy Squinty. I know you've been to bed with him. Y'hoor ye!” (Rest assured, he does not use the words ‘been to bed' but a more salty turn of phrase). She will reply: “Away and **** yerself ...”
- Finally, a man with a copiously bleeding head wound will pop up to assure me that “Them ’uns back there” (here he waves behind him) are “a parcel of backstabbin' *******”
Just like the M&S commercials,Eric and Ernie repeats, and auntie'spullover, it's the same every year.And every year the police will announce a crackdown on anti-socia lbehaviour. And every year the public grows a little more cynical at their efforts. Because we know that when push comes to shove the thugs own the streets. We live with the threat of (if we're lucky) ‘unpleasantness' or, at worst, outright violence.
Nor is is just confined to Belfast, or our other cities. There’s a shocking level of aggression in our towns, too. Everyone is so angry — and ready to let you know about it. Riots and beatings are at one end of the spectrum, but there’s also the snarls, stares and shouts.
Head out for a walk and someone will eyeball you as if to say “You walking on my pavement?” Dare to glance at the motorist who bullies his way into the keep clear box and you’ll be left fearing he’s going to get out and belt you. That person who queue-jumps, or takes the parking space you’ve been waiting 10 minutes on? Best to just take it on the chin and avoid any confrontation.
We used to take a perverse pride on being a friendly wee place, despite the Troubles. We’d go out of our way to be civil and helpful to prove we ‘weren’t all like that’.
There are still plenty of good people, but now they’re too scared to speak up. That sound you hear isn't Belfast having the Christmas buzz. It’s the hum of low-level, constant fear.