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N. Ireland's militias tap youths

Despite peace process, pro-British militias have recruited hundreds of young people this year.

By Anne CadwalladerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 21, 2001


Glen Branagh, a popular Protestant computer science student from north Belfast, had been looking forward to celebrating his 17th birthday a few days ago with friends.

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Instead, those friends are lighting candles in Glen's memory and making pilgrimages to the sidewalk where the young man found his death last week. He was killed 300 yards from his home when a bomb he was planning to throw at riot police blew up in his hands.

One month after the nationalist Irish Republican Army began an historic disarmament process amid a shaky cease-fire, Glen's death highlights the fatal appeal that loyalist paramilitaries continue to hold over young people.

Glen was one of hundreds of youths recruited this year into the Ulster Young Militants, the youth wing of the largest and most sectarian of Northern Ireland's Protestant paramilitaries, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

Opinions vary on why so many young men are flocking to join the UDA - and to what degree the appeal is ideological, economic, or simply youthful.

Ed Cairns, professor of Psychology at the University of Ulster, believes that in a society so inculcated in violence, it's not for political reasons or even hatred for the "other side" that many young people join.

"There's the element of peer pressure, wanting to appear tough in front of your friends, and the sheer excitement of getting your hands on weapons," professor Cairns says. "In a community where violence has been part of life for so long, belonging to an illegal group confers status."

Neil Jarman, deputy chief executive of the Institute for Conflict Research, partially agrees. "There is a culture of violence, particularly in north Belfast, which politicians have not admitted, let alone tackled," he says.

Mr. Jarman's office and home lie within yards of where Glen was fatally wounded. This area is a notorious flashpoint - an interface between Catholic and Protestant dwellings. According to statistics, Jarman says, "there were 107 days of rioting in this small area over the last four years, concentrated in the summer months."

"There is a ... culture of heroism and martyrdom," Jarman explains. "Boys as young as 4 years old are rioting after school. Boys barely older are brought by their 30-year-old fathers to watch loyalist bands marching through the area," he says. "They don't start off with bombs in their hands. They might begin by throwing stones at rival Catholic youths on street corners. Then, when someone is hurt, older boys join in and it escalates."

Jarman is critical both of Protestant politicians, who seek to keep the union with Britain, and Catholic nationalists, who want to unite with the rest of Ireland. "There has been a failure of leadership," he says, explaining that neither side shows any public reconciliation. "They snipe at each other and back up their own side. They should have learned from other global post-conflict situations where violence - although theoretically over - re-emerges in different forms."