A Night on the Streets

Allison Morris and Mal McCann forego their Friday night frolics to join the Community Watch on patrol

Community and Neighbourhood Watch are now a feature in most areas of West Belfast.

The scheme mimics a similar exercise in reclaiming the streets back from youth mob rule that has been applied in inner cities all over the world.

But few people are actually aware of just what the Community Watch and Neighbourhood Watch projects do. The fact is that most youth crime happens at night and more often at weekends so the people who volunteer for the scheme have to give up their weekends and holiday periods, the times when most of us are at home with our families or out socialising with friends.

But for the elderly, the less able bodied and the residents of estates in West Belfast – previously considered crime hotspots – the Watch are now being hailed as a valuable life line.

The Andersonstown News decided to take to the streets with members of the Colin Safer Neighbourhood project and the local Community Watch on a cold Friday night in January to witness at first hand just what the Community Watch actually do. And to see for ourselves if claims that only the community can reverse the growing post-ceasefire problem of youth crime and anti-social activity hold water.

Poleglass, Twinbrook and more recently Lagmore appear in the papers often, but usually for all the wrong reasons. However in an area of 28,000 people, with the largest youth population anywhere in the North, providing a community based alternative to policing seems a daunting, if not impossible task.

As we climb into the car with members of the mobile watch, Eamonn Cunningham, Michael McCabe and Dominic Hyland, we are told that we are going to visit one of the local Poleglass neighbourhood projects. However, within minutes we come across an abandoned Nissan with the doors lying open blocking the Bryanswell Road. Inside the car is littered with bottles of blue WKD – an alco pop favoured by teenage drinkers.

The car has only been abandoned minutes before and because of the age of the car and the fact that it appears to have been started with a key rather than a screwdriver, the Watch members say it is more than likely a runabout, an old car bought cheaply and then driven around with no tax or insurance.

One member of the Watch radios through the make and registration of the car to priest Fr Martin Magill who contacts the PSNI and lets them know the car has been recovered. If the PSNI officer on duty approves the car for recovery then a recovery vehicle is sent to retrieve it.

"Before we had a problem with abandoned cars being left for hours and sometimes days," explained Eamonn Cunningham.

"They usually ended up set on fire or the death drivers come back for them. It is vital to get them off the streets as soon as possible."

Another mobile watch unit arrives and say they will stay with the car to allow us to continue on our tour. A short while later they radio through that the car was picked up by the recovery truck just seven minutes after it was called through. A new record.

"It's great if the car gets lifted quickly. Someone has to stay with the car and while they are there they are not able to deal with any other problems," explains Eamonn.

In this case the carefully worked out routine worked like clockwork and another potentially deadly car is taken off the streets.

Next stop is the home of a Poleglass family who all volunteer for the Watch in some form or another - answering phone calls from worried residents, handing out leaflets or taking to the streets during their free time.

The family also store the alcohol confiscated from unruly teenagers by the Watch.

"We really want you to see this as we are often accused by the young people of drinking the alcohol ourselves, but that isn't the case at all," says Eamonn.
"We would usually ask the young people to move on first to a designated area where there wouldn't be a lot of houses nearby. We would drive back round an hour later and if they haven't moved we ask them again and then the third time we would confiscate their drink.

"Not all the people standing drinking on the street are underage, so we tell them if they want it back they can call the next day with a parent. As you can imagine they rarely do. The rest of the drink we have sold back to off-licences and the money is put towards a local charity."

There is quite a haul of alcohol stored away in a locked shed in Poleglass, and this is just since Christmas. The December stock had already been sold on and paid for the local ROTO club Christmas party. Multi-coloured alcopops unsurprisingly feature heavily, as does beer and cider.

"It's so cheap you see," says Dominic Hyland. "They can buy three two litre bottles for a fiver in some places. We are also aware of some adults who despite appeals are still buying drink for young people and making a profit for themselves in the meantime."

The Community Watch use radios to keep in touch with other mobile units and the individual estate Neighbourhood Watches
The radios were donated to them by Beckett’s Night Club when they updated their own system.

"We rely on volunteers and donations from local businesses," says Eamonn.
"But most people are really helpful because they can see the difference it is making."

That is a sentiment echoed by members of one of the longest running Neighbourhood Watches in Glenbank, Poleglass.

The area has in the past been one of the worst affected by car crime and anti-social behaviour. The Watch is made up mostly of women, local mothers with an interest in making the place they live safer for their children.

"Before we started standing here there would have been six or seven cars burnt each weekend," explained one mother.

"The cars would screech up and down the road until the early hours of the morning and no-one got any sleep. The homes at the entrance to the estate are bungalows with disabled and elderly residents. They were living in fear.

"Now you can see that it is cleaner and quieter. The young people are asked to move away to one of the designated areas. They give you a bit of grief but you have to remember who is the child and who is the adult here. And we don't just stop the anti-social behaviour, we have come across elderly people who came out for a walk and got lost or young women trying to get home at night not able to get a taxi and we make sure they get home safely. It has also helped us bond; some people might have been alone with their kids and never spoken to their neighbours, now there is a sense of community."

It is a similar story in Twinbrook where the Broom Watch has been going for some time and Thornhill was recently set up after a rise in levels of anti-social behaviour.

As we enter Twinbrook the recovery truck goes past with another car on the back that the Thornhill Watch had recovered.

"You see if one area sets up a Watch and another doesn't," explains one resident, “there is a danger that you are moving a crowd along and they are simply going elsewhere and causing bother outside someone else's door.

"Every estate needs to set up a watch, after all it is our lives we are trying to improve.

"This is about reclaiming our streets, taking them back from the thugs."
But the Safer Neighbourhood project is not all about youth crime.
In the Sally Garden Community Centre there has been a children's disco set up, run by a band of volunteers and local councillor Veronica Willis.

With an average of 175 children every Friday night, this can me more of a challenge than tackling any gang of teen tearaways full of cheap blue alcohol.
Inside the disco is packed and the young DJs – themselves just teenagers - have found a way to express themselves miles away from an off-licence and bottles of cheap booze.

As the night wears on and the cold starts to kick in I can see why the Watch say they have a problem getting residents to come out every weekend.
My fingers are numb and the rush hour hasn't even set in yet, apparently the real action doesn't start until after midnight.

Up in Lagmore the cold is biting but yet another band of residents, who say the main problem is lack of resources for young people, are on the streets.
One resident explains: "Look at the size of this place and there is nothing to cater for our kids. We have to hire buses if we want to take the kids anywhere, and that is when you get an anti-social problem. We were getting a lot of young ones who had been moved on from parts of Poleglass coming in here to drink and take drugs. So we started our own Watch and you can see the difference it makes."

Even the new private development of Mount Eagles has had problems in the past. But residents there have also banded together to form a Watch.

"There were incidents of young ones breaking into empty homes to have parties and using this road as a getaway in stolen cars," says one hardy Watch member. As if on cue a battered run-around with the exhaust dragging along the road comes into view and speeds past. A chain of sparks follows the car.

"There is a way they can cut through and into Dunmurry from here; we are trying to get a gate on the road that can be locked at night, as it's not really used. I think that would more or less stamp out any problems we have in this area."

Along with the Community Watch almost every weekend is Sally Garden drug outreach worker Martin Parker. He travels along with the Watch trying to reach the young people of the area in their own territory.

"The biggest problem we have is still alcohol. Solvents and drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy are also prevalent, but it is the level of alcohol abuse that causes the most concern.

"I go along with the mobile Watch most weekends and try to gain the confidence of the young people, it is not easy as they are often suspicious of your motives.

"Getting them to ask for help in the first place is the hardest task. I would then assess the extent of their problem and refer them on to either the Falls Community Council or Dunlewey for the help they need.

"We also run an awareness course in the Sally Garden Centre and that is all about giving young people the information they need, not in a pious way but in a way that they can relate to."

• The Colin Safer Neighbourhood Project will be holding a launch this Tuesday at 11am in the Sally Garden Community Centre; local MP Gerry Adams will be speaking at the event.

Journalist:: Allison Morris

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