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Eilis O'Hanlon

Nolan Inside Hydebank was a daunting reminder that Covid-19 is far from the only crisis facing NI

Eilis O'Hanlon


Drug abuse is the thread that links so many young offenders' stories but, unlike coronavirus, there's no prospect of a vaccine, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

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Stephen Nolan during the BBC NI's Inside Hydebank documentary

Stephen Nolan during the BBC NI's Inside Hydebank documentary

BBC NI

Nolan during the documentary

Nolan during the documentary

BBC NI

Stephen Nolan during the BBC NI's Inside Hydebank documentary

If Nolan Inside Hydebank proves nothing else, it's that people are ready to talk about something other than the coronavirus.

The three-part documentary, filmed inside the young offenders' institution in south Belfast, was must-see television, the sort of programme which, having watched one instalment, makes it impossible not to watch the rest in one sitting, not least because it showed the BBC radio and TV presenter in a far less pugnacious light than usual.

Stephen Nolan has always been an empathetic ear for people who are suffering, or on their uppers, through no fault of their own; but he's generally tougher on those who make their communities' lives a misery through their criminal behaviour.

This time, he let his guard down and allowed the inmates to do the talking. The result was eye-opening, perhaps mind-opening, too.

It will have changed the attitude of many people in Northern Ireland towards offenders, for whom it's traditionally a case of "out of sight, out of mind" - and rightly so.

It would take a heart of stone not to feel for some of them. Many had suffered dreadful childhoods of neglect and abuse, or were self harming to "show remorse" for what they'd done.

Only one of the inmates featured in the programme was truly unrepentant. The others, with various levels of articulacy, expressed regret at what they'd done, if only because they knew that, if they continued on the same path, then it would be Maghaberry next and that was a very different regime to Hydebank.

It was obvious that Nolan was deeply affected by the stories he heard. William Boyd was jailed after an infamous video of him as a 17-year-old taking part in an attack on a young woman on the seafront in Bangor went viral, featuring prominently on Nolan's Radio Ulster show.

He's now determined to make amends, but realises it won't be easy convincing those who don't know him that he's not the person they saw on that horrifying video.

Nolan, in turn, felt bad if he had in any way made the situation worse; and it didn't take long for him to move from presenting these young men as human beings who'd made mistakes and should be helped back on the straight and narrow to going further and insisting that they were "nice people".

It's understandable if that went down badly with some watching at home. The father of one victim told Nolan on radio this week that "they're only sorry because they were caught".

He has a point. One had beaten an autistic student so badly that he'd been in a coma for three months. He was originally charged with attempted murder, before it was downgraded to grievous bodily harm, and insisted that he wouldn't, indeed couldn't, do such a thing ever again; but we can only take the inmates' word for it that they've changed. It's impossible to know for sure.

All were aged between 18 and 21 and young men in those years can cause a lot of damage and grief to those who get in their way. Indeed, right at the start, viewers were told that "their offences range from theft to murder".

That's one hell of a range; and while they may have had hard lives, were they any harder than those of the victims who suffered at their hands?

That's the thing. The young men in Hydebank may be poor, traumatised, neglected - but so are their victims. In fact, those who end up in prison overwhelmingly do so after targeting and victimising other, equally deprived, members of their own community.

That's why communist philosopher Karl Marx himself was so unsympathetic to those he condemned as "discharged convicts, swindlers, charlatans, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, procurers, (and) brothel keepers". Russian revolutionary Lenin went even further, decrying such people as "degenerate and unemployable", and saw no other solution than to lock them up indefinitely.

That sounds heartless, but it's an opinion that finds many an echo in working-class communities. When you don't have much to begin with, there's little sympathy for those who make your life even harder.

Nolan said the young men behind bars in Hydebank were just asking for a "second chance"; but the truth is that they've already been given one. They have release dates and know what they need to do to stay out of trouble in future.

Given the challenges they face, that won't be easy, but there are plenty of other people in the same desperate, sinking boat who've never made the same bad choices and who've hurt no one and they deserve more credit for it.

Hydebank's not so bad, after all. The cells are cramped and a bit grotty, but they're no worse than many bedsits that people who never got into trouble have lived in at various times in their lives.

The prisoners have televisions, toiletries, 'munchies'. One even admitted it was "like a big youth club".

It's about finding the balance between acknowledging the social stresses that lead to crime and never forgetting who the real victims are.

That has obvious relevance to the seemingly endless legacy debate about how to respect the victims of terrorism.

For years, the usual suspects have indulged in equally persuasive arguments about why those who suffered tragedy, hardship and injustice took up the gun; but, ultimately, that was their choice, too.

Society didn't "make" them do it any more than it made the young men in Hydebank commit crimes of violence.

It's in everyone's interests that they get the help they need for their problems. As the programme said, 59% of Hydebank inmates reoffend within a year of release.

But holding out a helping hand shouldn't be allowed to become an exercise in making excuses for the inexcusable.

Some of the young men are, unfortunately, not averse to that, even if they don't realise they're doing it.

One, who stabbed a next-door neighbour during a row, had taken 10 Xanax tablets in the run-up to the incident and woke up in a cell subsequently not knowing where he was, or remembering what he'd done.

"If I wasn't on drugs," he said, "I wouldn't have done it." Maybe so, but he did do it, and regret doesn't change the past.

The moral issues raised by Nolan Inside Hydebank will take a while to unpack thoroughly. Most of all, though, it was a daunting reminder of the many messes in Northern Ireland that still need fixed, from poor mental health and social deprivation to educational inequality and defective parenting.

There's the running sore of drug abuse most of all. That was the linking thread of many of these tragedies.

Unhappily, unlike Covid-19, there's no prospect of a vaccine against that scourge.

Belfast Telegraph