Terrorist groups are still recruiting children in Northern Ireland
Paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland are still recruiting children, the chairman of a leading peace organisation has warned.
Dr Adrian Johnston, head of the International Fund for Ireland, also spoke of his fears that there would still be peace walls diving Belfast in 2050.
The IFI is dedicated to developing and funding initiatives to promote integration to build a lasting peace here. Dr Johnston told the Belfast Telegraph that paramilitary groups - both republican and loyalist - are targeting young people.
"We are aware from programmes we run that there are young people as young as 15 being approach by paramilitary organisations and being engaged in anti-social behaviour within their communities," he said.
“It is something we see on a day and daily basis with projects. We quite recently took a group away and we know from talking to them. One told us within the last few months they had been approached to join a paramilitary organisation.
“In the vacuum that exists there is an opportunity for paramilitaries to engage young people. These young people want to make sure their heritage is protected, both from a loyalist and a republican background.”
The IFI is about to launch its new five year strategy this week. It will focus on bulding confidence within interface communities, to work towards the eventual removal of peace walls.
Dr Johnston said there are still around 110 peace walls across Northern Ireland.
Through investment and by encouraging conversations between interface communities, there have been alterations to some 21 barricades, including the removal of some security gates, most recently those at the Newington Street barrier in north Belfast.
However, no walls have come down yet, and Dr Johnson said he cannot guarantee that we won’t be still looking at peace walls in 2050.
He stressed it is most important to let communities lead on progress and build confidence to reach a place where they feel comfortable to alter them.
But he revealed that in some cases walls have actually been reinforced to pacify those frightened of attacks.
Dr Johnston criticised a Stormont strategy which set 2023 as the date when the walls will come down.
“The peace walls are ultimately the responsibility of the Department of Justice. Belfast City Council and the Housing Executive both have a role to play, as do the communities and the funders,” he explained.
“So what we wanted to do was start from the grass roots and build confidence in those communities. “We support the communities to the point where they are ready to go to the next step, which might be a long term strategy for the regeneration of their area, but to do that they need support from Stormont.
“So my frustration is that, back in 2012 when Together Building a United Community was announced, an element of that was the removal of peace walls by 2023.
“I had said at that time I thought it was a very ambitious target, and three years later we don’t have a strategy in place nor financial strategy about how that will occur.
“We have already lost three years of that time scale and we are ultimately taking those communities to a place where they cannot progress any further.”
The first peace walls were erected in 1969, after the outbreak of the Troubles and were designed to be temporary structures lasting no more than six months, but have increased in height and number even since 1998’s Good Friday Agreement.
The 40-year-old became chairman of the International Fund for Ireland in 2012 and is presiding over a new chapter for the organisation.
In 2009 the then board started to wind down the organisation, taking the decision not to receive any more international donations for their work.
However, Dr Johnston said they ramped their work back up in 2012 with their peace impact programme, a major element of which concerned peace walls.
“I certainly would not be chairing an organisation that I felt wasn’t making an impact and was not of value to the people of Northern Ireland and the border county regions,” he said.
“At this moment of time it is crucial the fund continues its work.”