Stormont’s neglect of the most vulnerable in Northern Ireland has led its children to violence

OPINION

Reports of children as young as 12 being coerced to riot by gangs has been the most harrowing aspect of the recent upsurge of violence in Northern Ireland. The sinister and parasitical thugs who groom young people for criminal activity must be roundly condemned, but our political leaders share part of the blame for leaving children in the most deprived parts of Northern Ireland open to this abuse. By failing to tackle poverty and segregation in these areas, or to adequately resource frontline children’s services, our political institutions have let down the most vulnerable children in our society. It is imperative that we view the latest outbreak of violence within the context of this negligence.

Politicians from across the spectrum have condemned the influence of these criminal factions, with both First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill highlighting the need to stop the exploitation of young people.

When the Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon lamented the lost futures of those children now facing criminal convictions, she missed the point entirely. Many of those who incriminated themselves in these acts of violence have done so because they cannot envisage their future at all.

One of the most shocking pieces of footage to emerge from these riots was that of a young man setting himself alight with a petrol bomb in Newtownabbey. It grimly summed up the self-harm young people are carrying out on both themselves and their communities. Though shocking, the image isn’t new. Back in the 2018 riots in Derry’s nationalist Bogside area, similar acts were already taking place. Class-based inequality has pushed the young to the brink and it’s time Northern Ireland’s politicians woke up before it’s too late.

Teenagers from deprived areas will continue to be exploited by gangs until our leaders do the work required to offer them a future with meaning. Many of the young people caught up in the latest rioting have no living memory of the Troubles. Rather, they have grown up in areas that suffer from intergenerational poverty and segregation as a result of the conflict. One quarter of the children in Northern Ireland are living in relative child poverty. In Northern Ireland, violence and poverty are interlinked.

Dr. Julie-Ann Maney is a paediatrician based in West Belfast, one of the most deprived areas in the UK, where much of the recent violence took place. Dr. Maney sees the effects of child poverty ‘everyday’, and stresses the link between hunger and early behavioural issues. ‘Hungry children are often disruptive children’ and ‘are not able to reach their full potential.’

Since the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was signed in 1998 and Northern Ireland entered an era of something approximating peace, on the occasions when violence has broken out it has happened in deprived areas. One in four children in the country are living in relative income poverty. Years of austerity have stripped vulnerable communities bare. Now, the fatal blow of consecutive lockdowns means deprived and working families are faced with unprecedented stress, the risk of addiction, and PTSD.

At this fragile time, mental health crises can often lead to abuse in the home, family support services and frontline children’s services have been tragically limited to remote operations. With many children who have been out of school since Christmas only returning in the last week, it has been very difficult for chronically underfunded children’s services to maintain frontline monitoring and safeguarding measures.

In some cases, children who have been placed on the Child Protection Register, and therefore categorised as at risk of abuse in their own homes, have been monitored via Zoom calls over the course of the pandemic. This became possible after the government passed emergency legislation relaxing the legal requirement that these children be assessed in person at least once a month.

In these conditions it seems impossible that vulnerable children haven’t slipped through the cracks. Many of those who have been able to reach out for help have been relegated to the bottom of a waiting list. It is not enough for us to condemn children rioting on the streets – we need to first understand what is going on in their homes.

The Belfast Trust currently has the second highest number of referrals to Child and Adolescent Mental Health services. 347 children are currently on a waiting list for assessment and treatment for mental illness and mental health issues.

Families who were reliant on addiction support services and organisations such as Sure Start, which provide parenting support, have been left to cope largely on their own over the course of the last year. In many cases, this has led to childcare falling by the wayside.

Now is the time for politicians to set aside party political agendas and work to stop the influence of criminal factions on young people. To do this, they must prioritise eradicating the conditions of poverty and deprivation that have made so many susceptible to this influence in the first place.

Though both unionist and nationalist leaders have condemned the latest violence, they have been quick to blame each other in the next breath. Incendiary rhetoric and tit-for-tat politics has no doubt played some role in igniting the initial spark for these riots. Complex political anxieties and frustrations may be driving unrest in the loyalist community, but they are not the reason why teenagers feel they have nothing to lose in participating in criminal violence. They have been brought to this point after years of systemic negligence by the political institution that claims to represent them.

Over the last twenty years Northern Irish society has remained structurally segregated. Roughly just 10% of schools are integrated and 97 peace walls still separate working-class unionist and nationalist communities. A cynic might suspect that it is convenient for politicians that we continue to live in a deeply divided society. For the people they are failing are more likely to blame those on the other side of the peace line for the deprivation that continues to plague their communities, rather than their inept leaders.

When the GFA was signed, Stormont committed itself to the goals of ‘reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all.’ To build reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust our leaders must make possible for the most vulnerable youth the future they deserve by tackling the systemic issues of poverty and segregation in their communities. Only then can we hope to see an end to these outbreaks of violence.


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