Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 29 November 2014

How can we stop our young rioters ending up in prison?

Community leaders and former combatants are preaching the message that there's no glamour in violence, says Brian Rowan

It is too easy to dismiss the summer riots as the usual, what we expect and where we expect it. And it is too easy to look the other way and then wait for it all to happen again this time next year.

Those helicopter pictures released by the PSNI in recent days of the rioting mob in Ardoyne trying to push a burning car into police lines are images that speak a thousand words of the life-threatening danger in these situations.

In east Belfast, in the north of the city and in the riots that stretched out to Ballyclare and elsewhere someone could easily have been killed.

There was live fire in east Belfast - shots fired by dissident republicans - and plastic bullets were flying everywhere. So, we can wait for all it to happen again or we can try to do something.

Only those who recognised the voice will know who Winston is - the Winston who called the Nolan Show on Radio Ulster a couple of weeks' ago as the news and headlines told the story of the spreading violence.

Winston is 'Winkie' Rea, leader of the Red Hand Commando. He called to tell his own story and to explain what happened to those of his generation - what began with stones and bottles and developed into bombs and bullets and then jail.

His call was intended as a wake up. He was talking sense and making sense as others played in the madness and the mess of the rioting.

These are not situations that we should brush aside, play down, talk about and move on. There needs to be a more thinking, strategic, approach.

There is nothing romantic about conflict, and its cold realities need to be told and heard. That is what the Winston call to the Nolan Show was about.

So, how do you explain to young people the danger of these situations? And how do you isolate the puppet masters, whether mainstream UVF in east Belfast or dissident republican in Ardoyne; isolate those who are pulling the strings of our young people and watching them perform their dangerous acts in the different riotous playgrounds?

Part of it is a policing task - the part that is about identifying not just those who threw the stones and bottles, but those who direct these situations, again whether mainstream UVF in east Belfast or dissident republican in the north of the city.

But a policing response is only part of the answer. Others have to play their parts.

The loyalist Jackie McDonald, who is part of a group Prison to Peace, has with others from the republican community been speaking to young people; doing what Winston Rea was trying to do in that phone call to the Nolan Show.

It is people who for decades where at the coalface of this conflict trying to get a message out and through; that message that there is nothing glamorous about violence.

McDonald recently told me that he wants more of those conversations with young people in their schools and in their different communities.

And that approach is applauded by former senior PSNI officer Peter Sheridan, now Chief Executive of Co-operation Ireland.

"At the moment the only strategy out there is the policing and justice response," Sheridan says, "and that's right, there should be that response.

"But from a wider community perspective there has to be room for other interventions into young peoples' lives who are at risk and vulnerable to recruitment by paramilitary organisations.

"The interventions can be about education, changing attitudes and behaviour, and that's the work that needs the real focus."

Sheridan argues for a "co-ordinated effort" and a strategy that is both "collective and coherent".

And he is right about this being the real piece of work that needs to be done.

It is too easy to accept riots and rioting as the norm - too easy to look the other way, too easy to look on it as someone else's problem.

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