The Herald


Report by MICHAEL TIERNEY May 03 2004

The farthest part of a scaffold pole surrounding the steeple of Holy Cross Church, Barney Cairns hung by his neck, his body jolting and wriggling, like a fish trying to breathe in human hands. Deliberately, theatrically, the teenager had climbed the highest and most visible point in Ardoyne to take his own life. It was around 3.30 in the afternoon of February 14, a clear, sunny day. The church, which is under renovation, bisects the two local cultures that have divided Belfast for years: on one side a loyalist stronghold, on the other the Catholic district. Two years ago the twin spires of Holy Cross dominated the skyline around Ardoyne for another reason, providing a dramatic backdrop to one of the most bitter sectarian disputes in Northern Ireland.

In the distance Barney would have seen the layered outlines of Cave Hill and Belfast loch. Wearing blue jeans, a striped shirt and trainers, he removed his fleece jacket and looped it around the pole. He breathed deeply, then tied the fleece tightly around his craned neck, his skin pale and freckled. He leaned forward and dropped into the void beyond. Because Barney was slight and the drop was short, his death resulted from slow asphyxiation. His face became engorged, his tongue protruded, his eyes popped, he probably defecated while his limbs resisted violently.

Earlier that day the youngster had attended the Holy Cross funeral of his best friend, Anthony O'Neill. Anthony, known as Cheetah to his friends, had committed suicide three days previously – the 18-year-old was found hanging from his belt in the roof space of his Ardoyne home. In February 2003 he had received a punishment beating from the republican splinter group the Irish National Liberation Army. Barney had refused to carry the coffin in case he dropped it. He had a limp from the time he had been shot in each leg by the INLA, more than 18 months previously, after being accused of fighting with one of its members. After the funeral Barney, along with his parents George and Angela, headed to the nearby Star social club.

"I watched him going round people," says Angela, sitting at home, her voice momentarily warmed by the memory. "He was talking, shaking hands, eyes full of mischief." Later Barney turned to his mother and asked for a kiss. "So I gave him a small kiss. 'I want a proper kiss,' he said. 'Kiss me, mammy.' And he kissed me. It was like something a boyfriend would do. I looked at him and laughed. 'People are watching.'" She could feel the little trace of a moustache on his lip. "Then he went down-stairs to see his daddy. He borrowed a few bob and then went out for cigarettes." Back and forward she rocks unconsciously, feeling the pulse in her wrist.

A few hours later Father Aidan Troy, from Holy Cross Church, climbed the scaffolding to the top of the tower with a fellow priest and, unable to reach Barney, administered last rites from a platform. When the fire brigade arrived the youngster was placed inside a body bag, lowered by pulley and then put in an ambu-lance beside a gathering crowd for his father George to identify. "His father went inside," says the priest. "He just cradled his boy and whispered gently in his ear. It was one of those private moments that I'll never forget, wonderful but tragic."

Barney Cairns was 18. His life was not yet concrete or even substantial. "I think he killed himself," says George, "before the INLA did." The day he was buried, Barney was due to start work as a trainee mechanic.

The deaths of O'Neill and Cairns brought the total number of suicides in north Belfast since Christmas 2003 to at least 13, yet contrary to media reports not all have been INLA-related and not all the deaths have been in the Catholic community. Four suicides have been in the Protestant community, two of which were young girls. The rest are nationalists, one of whom was in his sixties.

And it's not just north Belfast that is suffering: in the past few weeks there have been at least four more suicides in west Belfast. For many people around here, often too inured to violence to be shocked, the recent suicides have highlighted a post-ceasefire epidemic, a long, painful disembowelment, where guns and violence remain at the heart of Ulster politics. In all its manifestations north Belfast has become a mute monument of misery, with little sign of any peace dividend.

Angela sits straight-backed, perched forward on the couch, her hands clasped tightly. An intense woman, she speaks slowly but her tracks of memory are indiscrete and muddled. "It's a whole life that's been lost, not a part of one," she says, crying. The sound is terrible, almost unrecognisable. More than a year has passed since I interviewed Barney in his wheelchair, his mother at his side, following his shooting by members of the INLA, a small hardline republican faction who believe in the creation of a socialist republic. Barney had spent most of his life in Ardoyne, but when he was 15 the Cairnses moved to another part of north Belfast a couple of miles away, along with their ten children. But Barney continued to spend most of his time with friends in Ardoyne. When he was shot, it changed everything. "They put me in a car," he said at the time. "They pulled the coat off my head and I heard two loud bangs. My leg bones snapped through my shin."

According to Angela, in the months before his death there were numerous suicide attempts. Her son needed specialist help. She shakes her head vigorously when I tell her the INLA believes it has a mandate from the people of Ardoyne to act as it does. "They are just scumbags," she says. "They murdered my child. Broke his mind, then broke his body. The INLA tormented him." Her voice sounds dead. She pauses. "I'm not afraid of any of them, not one of them." She pauses again. "The sins of the fathers will fall on the sons."

Later that afternoon, after trawling the basic facts of Barney's story (in her distress she could offer little more than that), I visit the family of Anthony O'Neill in Ardoyne. The ghetto of Ardoyne is a heavily populated, brooding and melancholic Catholic enclave that has seen many of the frontline problems associated with the Troubles. Here and there small houses sit alongside scrubby patches of grass and slabbing; there are few other districts in Northern Ireland that have experienced the intensity of violence and underlying social problems as Ardoyne over the last three decades.

By all accounts Anthony had yet to recover from being abducted from his home, bound at the wrist and ankles, taped at the mouth, beaten and hung down a manhole then threatened with being shot. He escaped, but the fear fed on itself and he sank deeper into depression. O'Neill first attempted to take his life last year – with a massive overdose – and later tried to hang himself. The INLA would not leave him alone.

"They would taunt him in the streets, playing with his mind," says his mother Audrey, pursing her lips angrily. She tries to say something else but the words get caught in her throat so she grapples with them for a minute, then gives up. Like Angela, she wanders for a while, her memories existing almost outside her body, physically detached. "He would cut his arms very badly," she says, finally. "It was a cry for help. He was just a typical, wayward teenager, no angel, but he never deserved what happened."

On the day he died O'Neill bought new clothes; then, in a tragic valedictory note that was found in his bedroom, wrote: "Dear Mum, as you know I've tried to kill myself for some time now. Life's too hard. I love you all. Tell Maria [his girlfriend] I love her. I'm sorry but I'm away to join my da." Patrick, his father, died when Anthony was seven. He signed the note "love, Cheetah".

Audrey looks out the window. "We'll take it in our own hands now," she says, with adamant fury. "I'll be done for murder." According to Audrey, boys of 13 are approached in Ardoyne as they play in the park and told they will soon be eligible for their first shooting. Anthony is buried now with his father in Milltown cemetery.

The events of the last few months have left Fr Troy groping for a spiritual foothold. Six weeks ago he attended a house where a 15-year-old had attempted suicide but was saved by his sister as he hung in his bedroom: on St Patrick's night another youngster tried to hang himself from the railings at the front of the chapel; then there was the girl of 11 who e-mailed him recently threatening to kill herself.

"That is the sort of thing that is happening here," says the priest, who came to international recognition for his work during the stand-off at Holy Cross school in 2001. "The girl told me where and the three songs she wanted played at the funeral. I went to her school and her mother. It turns out that the group she belonged to had been very touched by the deaths of these young men and suicide had become the main topic of conversation.

"Although they all have different motivations there is an element of the young ones following each other. Some say paramilitaries, while others say deprivation, lack of facilities, drugs or family problems. In truth it's probably all of these factors. Everyone is beginning to realise the enormity of what is going on. It is extremely sad and extremely worrying." He pauses. "It's been going on for longer than people imagine." Resignation furrows his forehead, a look of exhaustion is etched on his face. "I would appeal to them [the INLA] to stop. If they don't, we are going to be burying other young people."

The curtains are pulled shut. Two settees stand alongside an armchair. Walls are decorated with leftist slogans and a small, arthritic heater sits in the middle of the room. Four men, volunteers A, B, C and D of the north Belfast INLA, have agreed to be interviewed for the first time over allegations that Cairns and O'Neill were hounded to their deaths by an INLA punishment squad.

The two youths, says the INLA, had come to its attention for repeated antisocial behaviour – which can include joyriding, drug-dealing and drinking on street corners. The INLA also says it carried the attacks out in response to local pressure, yet denies it is partly responsible for their suicides. "The top half of Ardoyne is not a good place to be for antisocial behaviour," says B, his voice full of surprising propriety. "The INLA went down one night and moved Barney Cairns and he attacked them. That was OK, he was full of drink. He came back into Ardoyne another night with a knife asking for certain individuals who would be connected with the INLA in that area. This is what led Barney Cairns to be punished."

O'Neill, they say, had been causing trouble to the point where they were approached by one of his own older brothers, asking them to take him away and scare him. "He asked us to threaten to burn his own businesses if Cheetah didn't stop," says B, stressing the request was not acted upon. When the youngster was later "arrested" it was, allegedly, for further "anti-community" behaviour. "There is a backlash because the wee fella is now dead," adds volunteer D. "The INLA have been left with no option following a catalogue of events. But there are other alternatives and we are trying to put those in place."

These alternatives include a centre in Ardoyne, ostensibly run by the INLA, which will act as a mediation unit between victims and perpetrators. Have the young people here, I wonder, not become convenient scapegoats for adults worn down by social problems and political unrest? "The community comes to the INLA and they react," says C. "The INLA don't want to be involved with these actions but they do them because the community asks as a last resort." Should the INLA not wake up and compromise with political reality? Volunteer A smiles. The INLA speaks of the "peace process" with heavy irony. The message seems clear: there will be no retreat from purist armed republican socialism. It will lead the people to happiness – with an iron fist.

Responding to this, Fr Troy – and a number of other individuals in the community who do not wish to be named – disagree. "The INLA do not have a mandate here," says Fr Troy, "and I think they need to recognise this. They cannot do this to their own."
"The thing about Ardoyne is that there is nothing to do around here," says a local woman, "and so the kids are targeted by the paras." "There are problems here," adds another voice, "but the INLA make matters worse." Tracy O'Neill, Anthony's sister, says: "The INLA strut around as if they own the place. I've known half of them since I was at school. They were bullies at school and have turned into bullies."

Fr Troy adds: "There is a very big drug industry going on here and I have no doubt there is paramilitary involvement. I have no proof, but from everything I hear I have reason to believe that they are involved."

The INLA denies being involved in the drug trade, claiming that two years ago it arrested 36 people over a period of weeks who were involved in drugs. Two were physically punished. "We confiscated about £30,000 of drugs that was handed over to Fr Troy. He phoned the police. We are not a police force but we do have a responsibility and we reserve the right to protect sections of our community."

How would they feel, I wonder, if they lost a child as a result of a punishment beating, whether directly or indirectly? Just for a moment there is an audible silence before volunteer A mumbles something risible and phlegmatic.

What about the members of the INLA who appear to be over-exerting their authority? "There have been people in the INLA in the north of the city," says C, "involved in what you're saying, and those people have been physically punished and are no longer part of this organisation."

If punishment beatings are successful then why are sections of north Belfast not listening? "Six-million-dollar question," says volunteer C. "Why do people re-offend? You can get 110 different answers to that."

Community workers blame a policing vacuum in an area where officers have no trust, youngsters have poor prospects and there is a generation feeling worthless. Most teenagers rarely leave Ardoyne: they move from one street corner to the next, the slow, inexorable ritual of defeat evident in their gait. Other factors are high levels of alcohol and prescription-drug addiction. Mental health problems are wide-ranging, and it can take months to get an appointment with a psychiatrist. Add to this mix the paramilitary cocktail and there is more potential for suicide here than in just about any place in the UK. There were 132 male and 30 female suicides in Northern Ireland in 2002, with Belfast registering 28 of the total. According to Alan Wardle, project manager of the Shankill Stress and Trauma Group, since September 2003, in the predominately Protestant Greater Shankill area (including lower Shankill, Springmartin, Tigers Bay and Glencairn), there have been more than 30 suicides. The most recent official figures show that north Belfast has a suicide rate of 19 per 100,000 people, compared to 11 for Northern Ireland and 13 per 100,000 in the UK. A recent survey by the North Belfast Partnership found that the average age of drug users in the area is around ten. The figures, however, only serve to euphemise the devastation.

Speak to any group of youngsters and the response is the same: "There's nothing to do." Most of the youngsters who mill around these estates, caught in a world of antisocial behaviour, look more tranquillised by boredom than drugs. In three streets at the top of Ardoyne there are roughly 200 houses with around 450 young people under the age of 19 living in them. There are few facilities – a boxing club, a football club and a few youth clubs.

But not all the young people round here are immune from blame. Marie Gallagher is a shopkeeper in Ardoyne who has been bullied and attacked by thugs: she supports what the INLA is doing. "The hoods have been targeting people here for years – nine, ten and 11-year-olds, full of drink, terrorising people. The Chinese shop next door gets attacked. I lived through the Troubles and we never had these problems. Just now we need the likes of the INLA." Another man agrees. "We don't trust the PSNI [the Northern Irish police force], but we need someone to keep an eye on the hoods."

Unwittingly, the harbinger of the recent massive suicide trend may have been 17-year-old Phillip "Pip" McTaggart, a close friend of the two dead youths, who hanged himself in April last year in the Grove, part of the grounds of the Holy Cross Church. According to Pip's mother Angela, the youngster had spent most of the previous eight months at home after receiving a warning from the IRA for fighting.

"I thought at the time it was a good thing," she says softly, biting on her lip, when we meet a few days later. "A wee scare. Phillip wasn't an angel – but nothing bad, just what every wee lad done."

The night he died he had allegedly smashed a window of a car: there were rumours it belonged to an IRA member. "I don't believe Phillip intentionally killed himself," Angela says, "but he thought he had to get out of that situation. But I couldn't just blame the paramilitaries."

Around this time there were reports that a 14-year-old among Pip's circle of friends was tarred and feathered and shot through the back of his knee after the INLA accused him of being a police informer. The boy has since claimed the leader of the group threatened him with rape. The INLA told me there is an ongoing internal investigation into this.

Barney, Pip and Cheetah grew up on the same street and were part of a close-knit group of seven teenagers who attended St Gabriel's College in Ardoyne. Three other friends – Gary Black, 23, David Anderson, 18, and Piers Doherty, 18 – died in January when the car they were driving became, literally, airborne and smashed into a building at a height of 20ft. There were rumours the boys had formed a suicide pact. It is believed one of the victims, who had made a previous attempt on his life weeks earlier, was also expecting an INLA kneecapping.

Following Pip's suicide, his father – also Phillip; separated from his wife since his son was three – helped set up a group called the Public Initiative for the Prevention of Suicide and Self-Harm [Pips]. "We don't just believe it was the case of paramilitary involvement," he says. "There are other issues involved here. A young person doesn't just go off and take his life for one specific reason. We've had over 100 cases since Christmas of people trying to kill themselves and there is little or no funding to deal with the crisis. Counselling services need to be improved as a matter of priority."

Phillip McTaggart's face is a picture of anger and searching questions. According to Pips, there are four times as many girls attempting to take their lives in north Belfast than young men. More men lose their lives because they try it more violently.

When Evelyn Benson lost her daughter to suicide she was another typical casualty of the anarchic suicidal reality here. In November 2003 Evelyn found her 19-year-old daughter Sarah-Jane hanging from her four-poster bed. The girl had been indecently assaulted when she was 13. In the years that followed Sarah-Jane had ridden the downward spiral of glue-sniffing and the deaths of her brother and father, culminating in a serious beating by a group of more than 20 teenagers who accused her of being the "Fenian [Catholic]" who used to go out with a Protestant. Since her daughter's death, Evelyn has attempted to take her own life twice.

"Suicide is an epidemic here," she says, retaining the look of a woman awakened into a nightmare. "My friend's wee boy has threatened to her that he'll kill himself. He's 17 and he wishes he had the guts of Sarah-Jane. It's harder growing up now for the young ones than at the height of the Troubles. When the rioting was going on, that was exciting for them. When it stopped there was nothing to do. Children have been raised to rebel here, so how were they supposed to change overnight?"

It's a similar story in the Shankill, a place that, even in Belfast, conjures up images of despair. Much of the area has been written off as socially ruined, almost beyond help. Despite initiatives by the authorities to bring about improvement there has been a continuing degeneration.

Edward O'Neill was 35 when he took his own life. He hanged himself in Glasgow, following the break-up of his relationship with his partner. Yet according to his mother Jean, who lives in the Shankill, her son grew depressed following repeated threats from associates of her ex-partner who were allegedly "involved with [the paramilitaries] and he just couldn't cope. These people just scare the life out of you." On Christmas Day 2003 a young Protestant girl hanged herself and was found by her mother, who has since similarly attempted to take her own life.

Alan Wardle puts many of these incidents down to tensions and underlying problems that have been suppressed during the past 30 years. "Pre-ceasefire the youth of our communities would be involved in what you might call recreational rioting – stone-throwing et cetera. Post-ceasefire there is a huge vacuum where young people have nothing to do, drugs have become very problematic and they have become disconnected from the political process. The culture of suicide is seen as an easy way out of this turmoil."

Back in the living room of Angela Cairns's house, her face is a blank. She is shaking from the medication she is on. She is crying now, very pale. She has trouble sleeping and looks fuddled. Another hard burst. It takes 15 minutes for her to calm down.

She is holding a picture of her son. Barney seems the spit of his mother. Mother and son, one dead, the other barely alive, have become an embodiment of the tragic history of this city. "We're going to move back to Ardoyne," she says, and there is no expression in her eyes. She wants Barney to have a presence in the world. Her heart is racing. "They [the INLA] will not scare my family away. Not ever."

As a message to her son's tormentors it is as profound as the suicide of Barney Cairns. In north Belfast it might prove just as fatal.


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