Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

Tragedy of Julie Ann reveals the uncaring face of Northern Ireland

Shortly before Christmas, many of us watched transfixed, appalled and horrified by Carol Morley's documentary Dreams of a Life, the story of Joyce Carol Vincent, whose body lay undiscovered for nearly three years in her flat.

When officials of the housing association which rented the flat to Vincent finally broke down the door in order to repossess the flat, they found the 38-year-old's skeletal remains on the couch, surrounded by unopened Christmas presents. The TV was still on (BBC1) and the dishes of her last meal remained in the sink unwashed.

It was a sad story. How had she fallen through the cracks, we wondered? Many blamed living in modern, atomised London.

Nothing like that could happen here in Belfast where everyone knows everyone and you can't walk down the street eating a packet of crisps without 10 other people knowing about it within the hour. Except, of course, it can and did.

The story of Julie Ann Watson, a mum-of-three, was disturbing, shocking and profoundly sad. The 37-year-old's body lay at the rear of a derelict Donegall Avenue house for 19 months before being discovered by chance.

Yes, Julie Ann was troubled. In care when her parents divorced, she was addicted to drink and suffered severe mental problems.

But when she disappeared nobody bothered to look for her. In every way imaginable, she wasn't missed.

This is not to apportion blame. It is nobody's 'job' to save people from themselves and to blame innocent families or indeed the amorphous 'authorities' isn't really the point. We're all guilty in building a society that allows people to 'disappear'.

Julie Ann Watson was an extreme case but there are probably thousands of people out there in 'traditionally communal' Belfast whose bindings with the rest of us are fraying dramatically day by day. For some those ties will snap and they will float off, unnoticed and – to speak sentimentally – unloved. Others will be rescued: by themselves, by friends, by the merest chance.

Forget about impersonal, uncaring London. The same coldness, the same callousness, the same casual indifference exists here in Northern Ireland. BT12 or a bedsit in Wood Green – as much as we would like to think otherwise, they are not so different worlds.

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