N. Ireland's militias tap youths

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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

Glen's minister was the Rev. Robert Beckett, an evangelical Presbyterian who taught his Sunday School class.

"Glen believed, like many loyalists do around here, that the British and Irish governments have already agreed to force a united Ireland on us. The loyalist paramilitaries are the only ones who will use violence to prevent that - and the police are being used to destroy that resistance and hasten" a united Ireland, Mr. Beckett says.

Jarman and Beckett agree that there are also territorial reasons why young people - young men in particular - are joining the UDA. As more prosperous families move out of the district into new neighborhoods surrounding Belfast, those left behind feel vulnerable.

The turf war involves rival gangs of loyalists. The other main loyalist group, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), is less violent and volatile. Its cease-fire is still in force with the British government, while the UDA's has been declared over.

Young men who want to see "action" are joining the UDA, rather than the UVF, says Alban Maginness, and assembly member in the moderate Catholic Social Democratic Labour Party.

"This is a concerted campaign by the UDA to strengthen its hold and to control the Protestant working class," Mr. Maginness says. "They are fed a diet of the red meat of sectarianism and told by some mainstream Unionist leaders that the peace process is only a sellout of the Protestant community.... Eventually, many of them believe it."

Jarman, Beckett, and Maginness all believe that more effective policing has a role to play, but that it cannot be the whole answer. Beckett says loyalist politicians must give a more effective voice to the community's grievances.

"Loyalists have not made the transition from fighting violently for our aims to an effective democratic approach. We have to create a political machine," Beckett says. "The message isn't getting across, our concerns and fears are not heard. A cornered animal can be a vicious and cruel thing."

The night before Glen was buried, Beckett was invited to lead a religious service at the spot where Glen was fatally injured. Three hundred young people attended.

"I told them the future was in their hands. That we could have more scenes like this, or Glen could be the last to die," Beckett says. "I told them they should leave the path of violence, which was not God's way.

"I said they should not take the law into their own hands, and I quoted the Bible and said that those who lived by the sword would perish by the sword." Beckett continues. "I felt they were listening to me."

Time will tell. But judging by the words spoken by young people on the day of Glen's funeral, there may be a way to go before these Protestant youths feel willing to work toward reconciliation. Few people doubt that the UDA will try to avenge Glen's death by attacking the local Catholic community or the police.

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