Belfast Telegraph

Monday 24 November 2014

The kids are alright, and they proved it during Belfast City Hall fire drama

Teenager Paul Russell  challenges the asylum seeker  about to set himself on fire  outside Belfast City Hall
Teenager Paul Russell challenges the asylum seeker about to set himself on fire outside Belfast City Hall
Paul Connolly

One of the most incredible videos of the past week showed a man attempting to set fire to himself at Belfast City Hall.

It really was gripping stuff, not just for the hypnotic horror of the incident, but for the emotional dramas contained within it. (The video is here; note strong language and graphic content.)

To me, much of human life is acted out in the one minute and 35 seconds it takes for the smartphone video to play: the cockiness of youth, the occasional banality of madness, the joie de vivre of adolescence, the hopelessness of despair, the triumph of courage and the sheer basic decency of people, in this case many of them a group of often-marginalised teenagers.

For those who missed it, the Belfast Telegraph revealed last week how a man attempted to set himself — and apparently some other people — on fire at City Hall gates in Donegall Square North.

He was reportedly an asylum seeker, who believed the authorities had a grudge against him.

He summoned the kids over by saying: “You want to see something? Record this.” Thinking it was a magic trick, the teenagers duly obliged as the man set paper ablaze beside himself. Then he sprinkled the flammable liquid over others, but mainly dousing himself, and started walking into the fireball he had just created.

A quick-thinking young man either knocks or punches him to the ground just a couple of feet before he would have burst into flames. Another young man helps to restrain him until police arrive and subdue him, reportedly with a Taser electric stun-gun.

Everything happens in seconds, but if it was not for these teenagers, this was undoubtedly an incident that would have ended in horror; the kind of “human fireball” drama that would have been in the news for days.

Now, it could well be that the point of this video is that there is an urgent discussion to be had in our community about immigration and asylum seekers, or perhaps about people suffering from acute mental illness and the resource we do — or don't — devote to their care. All that and more, I'm sure.

But the thing that sticks in my mind is the sheer energy and strength of character of our young people (who are all too often written off by other generations — as were successive generations of teenagers before them, of course).

You can see this teenage vitality in their delighted reaction and daft jokes when the man shouts “F*** the system” and they all cheer.

But you can almost literally hear the penny drop in two seconds flat when he douses himself and says: “This State hates me.” I know they guessed what was happening quicker than I would have.

You can hear the heartfelt cries of, “No, mate, no. Don't do it.” Me? I'd just have stood there open-mouthed and useless, or else cynically thinking it was some kind of stunt. Until it was too late.

Not these kids. Many of you will kind of know them and their mates. The goths and emos and punky types who hang out around the railings at City Hall. Have done for decades (I made a few very brief appearances there as a pimply punk myself more years ago than I'd care to imagine).

Next time you go to step out around them on the footpath, because they're loud and they swear a lot, think about how some of them helped save that guy's life.

How fast they were to realise the nightmare that was unfolding quicker than most of us would. The clear and present danger; the imminent, public and horrific waste of a human life.

And how — impulsively, selflessly, decisively — they stepped in to stop it.

I'm proud of them. We all should be.

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@BelTelReadersEd

BTreaderseditor@gmail.com

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