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Beyond the pale: a city underclass bent on anarchy

All over the walls in working-class republican areas of Belfast in the 1970s the letters 'U' and 'T' were ubiquitous. They were usually followed either by the letters 'P' (Provos), 'S' (Stickies - Official IRA), or 'E' (Erps - Irish National Liberation Army).

But there was another three-letter slogan that reflected altogether different communal allegiance than the ones to do with the fractious feuding family of republicanism.

'UTH' first started appearing inside and outside the walls of Divis Flats in the late-1970s. 'Up the Hoods' was an act of defiance not only against the forces of the state, but against the authority of the Provisional IRA and, for many in that sub-class, the price of defiance was injury, or death.

Heather Hamill, in her excellent study of this social phenomenon, The Hoods, found that between 1973 and 2007, there were more than 5,000 'non-military' shootings and assaults.

The overwhelming majority of the victims of this violence were young, working-class males, often with long criminal records.

One of the most important of Hamill's findings in this analysis of an often-overlooked social group is their attitudes to the cult of so-called 'punishment' beatings and shootings.

She asks an apposite question which is as relevant today as it was when the 'hoods' first emerged from the wreckage of the early Troubles: why did a brutal and sometimes lethal form of paramilitary justice fail to deter them from offending?

Hamill finds evidence from interviews conducted with some of the most-hardened 'hoods' that the actual physical punishments thousands of them endured created a macho sub-cult where the toughest 'manfully' took their beating, or shooting.

Some of the real-life anecdotal stories about this 'manful' 'hood' stoicism are stranger than fiction. There is a true story about a legendary 'hood' from the Markets area, who was drinking in a downtown Belfast bar one afternoon around the time of the 1994 IRA ceasefire.

The phone rang in the pub and someone down the line asked for the 'hood' by name. When he came to the phone, the voice informed that he was going to be shot at 4pm and would he mind coming down to a pre-arranged place to take the bullet.

The 'hood' put down the receiver, ordered several drinks and told the barman he had to leave so he could be shot at 4pm. Which subsequently happened. He obliged the Provos and took his punishment.

This tale has since, of course, become part of his legend and underpins what Hamill calls a 'signalling game', where the 'hood' increases his status in that community.

As the rich and their apologists often patronisingly say about the poor, it seems, in Northern Ireland and in Belfast in particular, the 'hoods' are always going to be with us.

They have outlasted the Provisional IRA which has since left the stage. And, while they are now in the crosshairs of the Real IRA in Derry (which has carried out dozens of so-called 'punishment' shootings') and Oglaigh na hEireann (ONH) in parts of Belfast, a new generation of 'hoods' remain as defiant as their predecessors.

Indeed, as Hamill points out, many of the current crop of young car-criminals, thieves and petty drug-dealers can claim bloodlines back to the original 'hoods' of the 1970s - some of them the grandchildren, even great-grandchildren, of the early so-called 'joyriders'.

That is why it has come as no surprise to those who had to live among and endure the 'hoods' over the decades that a new brand of car-criminal is currently terrifying motorists in Belfast - the carjackers who refer to themselves as the 'Divis hoods'.

One of those who stood in the dock this week accused of carjacking had 45 previous convictions, was supposed to be on curfew and wore an electronic tag.

No wonder he caused outrage when he laughed in court. He comes from a culture where a section of youth continue to laugh in the face of all authority - including the hard men with woolly faces wielding baseball bats and shotguns.

The existence of the 'hoods', paradoxically, continues to provide potential backing from within working-class republican districts for the dissidents.

While support is rising among the nationalist population for the PSNI, there remains a residual sneaking regard for those taking the law into their own hands and carrying out shootings and beatings against the 'hoods'.

In Derry, the Real IRA appears to have a strategy of providing short-circuited 'justice' to certain communities by continuing to target perceived anti-social elements. It is a means of building support, both logistical and political, among a populace which, in general, wants to see no return to the kind of lives they led during the Troubles.

The 'hoods', therefore, remain useful targets for hardline republicans in their struggle to close down the space in which the official forces of law and order can operate.

Beatings and shootings have not and will not solve this enduring social problem; this by-product of the abnormality of growing up in violent conflict.

'Hoods' wear their battle scars with pride. They revel in being social outcasts. They have outlasted some of their old enemies.

That's why some of them still write 'UTH' in defiance of everyone around them.