Living in fear of the Death-drivers

Roisin McManus takes a look at the car crime epidemic which has residents of the Lower Falls living in fear, afraid to walk to the shops or even attend Mass on a Sunday. She asks those who work at the coalface of the scourge what can be done to break the cycle

Never mind what recently released statistics say, car crime in the Lower Falls area is reaching epidemic proportions, according to residents, community activists and local politicians.

According to local community activists the car crime problem has intensified in the past couple of months. They say that while there are only around seven ringleaders responsible for the scourge on the community, these ringleaders have a following of around 50 young people.

Local people have staged a series of protests recently in an attempt to reclaim the streets from local hoods.

A further protest will be held in Albert Street at 7.30pm on Wednesday and the people of West Belfast are being urged to come out and show their support for the residents.

For the people of the Lower Falls, car crime is a daily fact of life. Community workers say that in a week up to ten stolen cars can appear in the area and be raced around the narrow streets. The workers also say that many local people are afraid to go out because the area is being terrorised by death drivers.

“We have about seven main players involved in this in the district,” said well-known local community worker John Leathem. “The cars are mostly stolen from outside and brought in here to race about the area.”
John believes that the scourge of car crime is having a devastating effect on the local area.

“There is an air of despair in the area,” said John. “We recently had the opening of St Peter’s Cathedral which is the jewel in the crown of the Catholic Church in Belfast and at the same time we had youngsters as young as seven years of age who wound down the window of a car in Servia Street and set the car on fire.

“What does that say to you? People are afraid to go to chapel because they don’t know what’s going to happen on the way there. People in the Servia Street and Albert Street areas are afraid to come out because they have been threatened.”

A local Community Watch worker, who did not wish to be named, said that while the problem used to be mainly at the weekends, it now happens daily and often in broad daylight.

“Weekends can be the worst, but in the last two or three weeks there has been an upsurge on week nights.

“The truth is, and this is the most disheartening thing, people are frightened.
“Kids from all over the area come to congregate in Albert Street because they know that hoods will be racing cars there.

“The kids get to wreck the car afterwards, they think it is a game. They now go to Albert Street after school with the expectation that something is going to happen.

“I have spoken to many parents and the responses are various, ranging from genuine apologies through to saying ‘he wasn’t on his own’ as if that compensates for what their child was doing. I don’t understand that logic, I would just be horrified that my child was involved.”

The Community Watch activist says that many of the hoods have made a career out of car crime.

“It is a lifestyle for them,” said the community worker.

“There has to be a solution, otherwise what is the point of our work? People get angry and want a quick-fix solution, but there is no quick fix. I believe that the answer for this particular area is to isolate the younger children and get them away. Then you are breaking a cycle where the younger ones are following the older ones.

“If we get the younger ones away from this then you are left with the hardcore. I believe that these people will become lifelong criminals and I don’t think that there is anything that we can do to help them.

“I think that we should be concentrating on helping the younger ones and giving them back their childhoods.”

The Community Watch man says that he is amazed more people have not been killed or seriously injured by death drivers in the Lower Falls.
“I am very surprised that more people haven’t been killed. These people don’t care if they knock someone down.”

Local Sinn Féin MLA Fra McCann said that a lot of good work is going on in the area in a bid to combat the car crime problem. He says that local people are working tirelessly in a bid to stop the problem.

“The ambition in the community is to change the cycle of young people standing around street corners,” he said.
“There is a lot of good work going on in the local area such as the efforts of the Frank Gillen Centre which is providing educational training. The HEART Project in Albert Street Community Centre is also doing great work.

“Out of the community groups has sprung the umbrella group the Falls Partnership Initiative which takes in a number of community groups from the area stretching from Hamill Street to Roden Street. This is a more co-ordinated approach to meeting the challenges in the area. There are a number of good things going on in the area such as the refurbishment of Dunville Park, investment in the HEART Project and the six million pound investment in the Falls Swim Centre.”

Councillor McCann said that community workers are working extremely hard to eradicate the problems facing the area and added that he believes the PSNI are doing little or nothing to tackle the problem of car crime in the Lower Falls.

“The situation is terrible and terrifying for local people. I will be meeting with the IMPACT car crime group on Monday [today] and asking them about figures in their recent report which I don’t believe reflect the situation in the Lower Falls,” he added.

Journalist:: Roisin McManus

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