Growing up in the shadow of violence

Northern Ireland seems tantalizingly close to peace, but years of disillusionment make these teens skeptical.


Brenda Whelan has spent the past five years going to a school that's 200 yards away from Dave Simmons's house. Five days a week, Dave travels past Brenda's home on the way to work.

In almost any other part of the world, two teenagers who have spent so much time in close proximity, who have danced to the same music, who have been soaked by the same rain, and who share many of the same fears, would know each other well.

But, in all probability, they will never meet. Brenda is an Irish Catholic. Dave is Protestant and British.

Yet, both use the same words to describe their common dream: To leave the riots and bombs of Northern Ireland to find out what it's like to live without "looking over your shoulder all the time."

Even after the IRA's first, historic step last week toward decommissioning its weapons, Dave and Brenda, and many of their peers, are doubtful Northern Ireland will ever be a safe, prosperous place to build a future.

"Belfast is still a dangerous place to live," says Dave. "I'm not sure the IRA are being truthful about their real long-term intentions - but I suppose there is slightly more hope in the back of my head." He adds that the Catholic paramilitaries and others who want to form a single, united Ireland "have said so many times that they want a peaceful future, but you can't be sure. Hopefully, they'll give up violence for good, but it won't make any difference to my plans to leave."

Brenda says she is worried after hearing that some Catholics "would say the IRA had given up and that was wrong, and they wouldn't agree with it and there would be fighting within our own community."

Ed Cairns, professor of psychology at the University of Ulster, is not surprised at the cautious response of both young people to what others have greeted as good news.

"Repeated surveys show that young people, like their parents, are increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for a lasting peace and economic prosperity in Northern Ireland.

"Young people, especially middle-class young people of ability, are increasingly leaving to study in Britain. These are the leaders of the future, who don't like being labeled as either Catholic or Protestant," he says.

Brenda learned early what it means to be a target of hate. When she was 2, a bomb thrown through a window of her family's home set the furniture on fire. The teen now studies computer technology one day a week at a renovated linen mill. Recently, she had left her workstation for a lunch break when, two minutes later, a pipe bomb exploded right where she had been sitting.

Dave, a wiry, fit youth with close-cut hair in the current Belfast fashion, was beaten two years ago by a gang of Catholics, loyal to the Irish Republic, and speaks with barely concealed contempt for those who have forced him to consider eventually moving away from his hometown. A biology student, he has taken a year off from college to earn money.

Both Dave and Brenda met others of a different denomination when they began part-time jobs. But neither has visited the homes of their "other religion" workmates - because they wouldn't feel safe, they say.

Dave lives in Ballysillan, a sprawling, well-maintained working-class neighborhood just north of the Catholic Ardoyne area where Brenda, a fashionable girl with tumbling chestnut curls, lives. Ardoyne is a close-knit community where most people vote for Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, and want a united Ireland without British rule.

North Belfast is a patchwork quilt of such Protestant and Catholic communities, divided by the many high brick-and-steel "peace lines" built over the past 30 years to give each protection from the other. Despite the peace walls, more than a fifth of the nearly 4,000 people killed over the past 30 years in Northern Ireland have perished in north Belfast.

Whatever good news there might now be on the larger political front, here in North Belfast, the hatred and violence continues.

Since June, Protestants in upper Ardoyne have blockaded parents and pupils from walking to Holy Cross girls' elementary school. The tensions intensified in the fall and have now spilled over into street violence at night, with an estimated 250 pipe bombs thrown at Catholic homes in the past nine months,and Protestants complaining of police "heavy-handedness."

To the outside visitor, the streets of Northern Belfast look like an ordinary urban suburb here, with well-kept gardens, schools, parks, churches, hospitals, and shops. But those who live along these streets are well aware of the dangers of crossing the boundary into the "other side." School buses winding through the neighborhoods are a favorite target for rival gangs. Dave says that "bricking" school buses was a favorite pastime of his school pals.

Dave used to play the cornet in a brass band, marching on "The Twelfth" of July each year, the day members of the "Orange Order" annually celebrate the 1690 victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James. And he says he has attended the "Eleventh Night" bonfires on July 11, when effigies of the pope are burned. After one such night, he ambled into the city center, where six or seven Catholic youths demanded that he say the "Hail Mary." "When I obviously couldn't, they began hitting me."

Brenda recalls the most frightening moment of her life, when she missed the school bus and then took a regular bus. She found herself in the middle of a crowd of Protestant boys who spat at her and threw eggs and bottles of soda.

At a part-time job in a boutique, she met young Protestants for the first time. "The atmosphere was great, we all got on fine, but when I went to work for a different shop, it was different, tense."

Brenda says that the sounds of conflict are often the last thing she hears before sleep. "I lie in bed at night and listen to the rioting down the street. You can hear the bangs, and you wonder if they are bombs or just firecrackers.

"I'd love to travel abroad when I grow up - I'd love to work on a cruise ship and see different places," she says. "I went to Germany for a week with the youth club a couple of years ago, and it was great. Most of the people there were Protestants - but it didn't seem to make any difference over there."

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