Telegraph | News | The lawless society where terrorists are driving teenage boys to kill themselves

The lawless society where terrorists are driving teenage boys to kill themselves

By Thomas Harding, Ireland Correspondent
(Filed: 18/02/2004)

The latest young man to die in a series of apparent suicides linked to paramilitary intimidation and violence in a small area of Belfast was buried yesterday.

Two years ago Barney Cairns made the mistake of getting into an argument and "squaring up" to a member of the Irish National Liberation Army.

The revenge of the small republican group, which broke away from the IRA in the mid-1970s, was swift. Within hours the teenager, then 16, was abducted and shot in the legs. But it was not the physical scars that led to his death. He became mentally unstable as a result of the assault.

It appears he "snapped" after the funeral of his friend Anthony O'Neill, who also committed suicide last week. Like Mr Cairns, Mr O'Neill is said to have become depressed after suffering an INLA "punishment attack".

A few hours after Mr O'Neill was buried Mr Cairns climbed scaffolding surrounding a church spire and hanged himself. It was the 11th such death in north Belfast, where a quarter of all deaths in the Troubles occurred, since the New Year. The majority of apparent suicides have been by young men intimidated by the INLA in the Roman Catholic Ardoyne area.

With annual suicide figures in Northern Ireland averaging about 150, the Ardoyne, with a population of about 10,000, now has a rate that threatens to outstrip the entire province.

Fr Aidan Troy, the Catholic priest who earned international coverage for his mediation during the Holy Cross primary school dispute, has challenged the INLA to issue a statement to end all punishment attacks. "We are seeking a declaration from INLA that no young person is under threat," he told The Daily Telegraph.

"Until we get that, I'm afraid we will have further deaths. The INLA have no mandate from society. That pressure can be lifted from these young men today."

The Holy Cross dispute, in which loyalists tried to stop Catholic primary school pupils walking through their area, has ended, but there are still children on medication as a result.

Since then the Provisional IRA, under political pressure from Sinn Fein, has toned down its military activities and lost ground to the INLA in the Ardoyne.

The area, which has a myriad of streets, is near impossible to police. With Sinn Fein refusing to sign up to police reforms the INLA has stepped into the power vacuum.

The INLA, the group responsible for 127 murders in the Troubles, appears more interested in drug dealing than republican ideals, security sources say. For the last two years its leader, who allegedly murdered an RUC officer, has claimed to act for the community.

Last year the group's political wing, the Irish Republican Socialist Party, said: "Young individuals in Ardoyne were punished for a range of anti-social actions that warranted and deserved a response."

The group claimed it did not torture teenagers, but the evidence is to the contrary. A troublesome 14-year-old boy was tarred and feathered last summer and last month had his shin shattered in an INLA shooting.

Kieran, 19, was another victim. Two years ago he was abducted, tied to a chair, beaten and interrogated for two hours about a stolen car.

"I felt worthless, less than nothing," he said. "If they had done it again I would have thought about suicide." He also spoke of a friend who was put in a bath and threatened with electrocution with a hairdryer.

The teenagers have few means of support to turn to although a 24-hour helpline was set up on Monday. The paramilitary beatings coupled with adolescent anxiety, drink and cannabis induced paranoia are thought to be the main cause of the deaths. "It's a lawless society policed by the lawless," said one resident.

Fr Troy, who climbed the scaffolding to administer the Last Rites to Barney Cairns, said he was prepared to talk to the INLA at any time to "help to get them out of the awful situation they have got themselves into".

"If they were to make a statement saying to any young person in north Belfast under threat from us of any sort, that we abandon interrogation, sentencing, punishment attacks and harassment, that would instantly relieve the pressure."

Dr Columba McLaughlin, a mental health lecturer at the University of Ulster who is an expert on suicide rates in Northern Ireland, called for an urgent investigation into the deaths.

"This outbreak is certainly shocking news to this community," he said. "At almost two a week you are going to get the whole annual average for Northern Ireland in this one small area. It's phenomenal at the moment.

"If you combine the paramilitary pressures with all the other pressure young males face you have the potential for an explosion in suicides."

There were 132 male and 30 female suicides in Northern Ireland in 2002, with Belfast registering 28 of the total. That figure is set to change dramatically with the current spate of deaths.

Scores of teenagers attended Barney Cairns's funeral in Belfast yesterday. Many were afraid to talk to reporters for fear of reprisal. A 17-year-old boy said: "These scumbags torture the neighbourhood. They tie us up and take boys away. It's just for nothing, smoking a bit of blow [cannabis]. They say it's for disorderly behaviour, but they are full of s—. They want to sell drugs."

Another boy at the funeral, aged 15, said: "It's only now that people are starting to realise there is a problem. We just stand on street corners with nothing to do. The INLA has a massive influence in the area, telling us what to do."

Inside the packed church Fr Brendan McGee spoke of the "arrogant and vindictive paramilitary groups" who he believed had left Mr Cairns "very insecure".

The coffin was carried by Mr Cairns's brothers and sisters from St Patrick's church and laid to rest in the City cemetery. A note on a wreath from his parents read: "These flowers will fade but our love for you will fill our hearts forever and ever, Mommy and Daddy."

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