I recently attended the ‘At Risk’ Youth Training Conference in Templepatrick, organised by the Education Authority, following a very warm invite from our talented and indefatigable colleagues from St Peter’s Immaculata Youth Centre, Divis.
To a packed room of approximately 200 hundred youth work professionals and some teachers, we heard from a host of eminent speakers about the horrific and long term impact of paramilitary shootings and beatings upon young people, their family, friends and of course the wider Northern Ireland community.
Arlene Kee, the Education Authority’s Assistant Director of Youth Services opened the Conference by outlining the Fresh Start Agreement, the Executive action plan on tackling paramilitarism and organised crime established in 2017. She explained how, as part of a four year programme of work, a number of areas across Northern Ireland have been identified for significant Capacity building. There are number of Programme objectives one of which is to ‘Identify effective pathways for engagement with children and young people at risk’. Given the complexities and nature of this intractable problem, targeting ways to engage the voices of children and young people in solution focused dialogues, should indeed be the basis upon which to begin this work.
Paul Smyth, one of the leading researchers in this field here in Northern Ireland, shared many of the key findings pertinent to this issue. This was certainly a wakeup call for me and reminded me why we need to focus our efforts in order to stop this problem in its tracks. Many of the findings struck a chord but those which stood out for me were the findings that:
- over the past 40 years of our conflict, around half of the victims of attacks are under 25 years
- many of these children had very difficult childhoods and very complex issues, including substance abuse, learning difficulties, mental health issues
- many had also been in and out of custody prior to the attacks.
Paul summarised this very poignantly suggesting that many of these children were ‘often very broken already’. This reinforced my own view that adverse experiences in childhood, especially those driven by poverty and social disadvantage, operate like a vortex, with powerful magnetic effect, drawing in other adversities and creating a toxic mix which is difficult to quantify, but much harder to escape from!
I am very fortunate not to live in a part of Belfast where such attacks are commonplace and as a Mother I am deeply grateful for that. Paul’s findings were a welcome, much needed, if deeply uncomfortable reminder of just what it’s like to live in a family where the fear of such brutality is a daily occurrence. This reality was made all the more poignant for me as some of these children, young people and families live less than 3 miles away from my own doorstep. My capacity to ‘turn a blind eye’ or not to fully witness and process the horror of these attacks is perhaps not entirely uncommon among the general population, as many of us do not have to experience this trauma in our daily lives. When I worked in Youth Justice I was certainly much more aware of the impact of such attacks, having worked alongside a number of young people who had been brutalised in this way. Paul's presentation of a case study helped bring into sharp focus the full nature and traumatic impact of the lived experiences of these young people, as well as the trauma experienced by those who love and live to protect them.
Over the course of the day we were urged to reframe our thinking and language around these attacks, not to describe them in terms of punishment. Reframing punishment as torture is an infinitely more appropriate description, due to the traumatic impact of such attacks.
We heard Duncan Morrow (University of Ulster) speak about the ethical challenges and dilemmas which both professionals and Communities face as we endeavour to address this problem. This was another important prompt for us during the Conference, to reflect more deeply on a problem which essentially perpetuates because it feeds fear, encourages tribal thinking and is therefore inherently divisive. The phrase ‘no smoke without fire’ comes to mind as many of us have heard, even within our own families, the expression “well he must have done something to deserve it”. This mindset is not an easy one to shift and Duncan urged a note of caution to those invested in addressing this problem, summarising what we all know to be true, that there are ‘no simple glib answers’. Duncan encouraged those present to recall some of the basic principles of youth work practice, which I found really useful:
· Every human counts
· Every young person counts
· Every at risk young person counts
Dr Duncan Redmill (Head of Trauma Royal Victoria hospital Belfast), an eminent surgeon who treats the victims of paramilitary attacks, presented some of his findings on both the long term physiological as well as the associated psychological impacts of such attacks on victims and the wider community. Dr Redmill’s address to the Conference was sobering and brought to the forefront of our consciousness the real and lasting traumatic impacts of such attacks.
Detective Chief Superintendent Tim Mairs, (PSNI) and Donna Whyte (DOJ) spoke about the challenges ahead as we strive towards developing a culture of Lawfulness and was realistic in suggesting that many Communities have lost confidence in the formal Justice systems. Amongst other insights during their presentation, I was particularly struck by the analogy they highlighted between paramilitary attacks on young people and domestic violence, both intimidating their victims through physical or the threat of physical attack, psychological as well as financial control.
What I came away from this conference with was the knowledge that this problem is alive and well and continuing to grow in our culture. I came away with a sense that our community here in Northern Ireland needs to engage in safe dialogues. We can then, together, find our courage and our voice, to say that it’s not OK and it has never been OK to shoot and maim our children and our young people. If we need an example to be led by, then we may well find it in the hearts and mind of youth work professionals. They have worked tirelessly for years, very often behind the scenes and at great personal cost, to protect, nurture and champion our most at risk and hurt children and young people.