The deepest definition of youth is life as yet untouched by tragedy - Alfred North Whitehead
Two former republican prisoners, Seamus Finucane and Jim McCarthy, have spoken to their local Sinn Fein paper regarding their views on the exiling from West Belfast of young people allegedly involved in anti-social activity. Finucane works with some Committee For Public Safety while McCarthy is prominent in Community Restorative Justice circles.
With a newly found sense of propriety Seamus Finucane said of a recent expulsion order:
Whatever the allegations, this is not the proper mechanism for dealing with this. These men need to be allowed back home to be with family, especially as some are suffering from mental health issues. There is no context to these threats and no support for the group issuing them. These threats are personality-driven.
In similar vein Jim McCarthy said:
We call on whoever made these threats on some very vulnerable people to lift them. Dialogue can resolve these issues and our door is always open, no issues are insurmountable.
Although it was claimed by one of the men interviewed that the group carrying out the measure had no public backing, conversely, a Sinn Fein supporter writing in the Irish News, while opposed to the measure, stated that ‘the expulsions of anti-social activists and anti-community criminal elements is clearly seen by some in our community as a positive step.’ He also referred to the criminal activity that goes unchecked day in day out seemingly enabled by ‘the total lack of any police presence.’
The eradication of crime and making streets safe by the PSNI was one of the implausible promises disingenuously made by those eager to win support for an armed British police force on the very streets that for decades had resisted the imposition of such a force. As the Irish News letter writer, Danny Kelly, correctly said ‘there will always be crime, no society is immune.’ Certainly not West Belfast if we buy into the correlation between poverty and crime where according to Brian Feeney there exists ‘the densest concentration of poverty and unemployment outside north Dublin.’ Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, Danny Kelly daubs as a failure the Provisional IRA policy for dealing with anti social activity, stating that had it worked Turf Lodge would have zero crime at this point. One more non-achievement to be added to the overall failure of the Provisional IRA campaign.
The group behind the expulsions is the armed republican body, Oglaigh na h-Eireann. It has picked up the baton, or - depending on the disciplinary rod of choice - baseball bat, handed down to it in legacy terms from the Provisional IRA. The former IRA frequently expelled young people on those occasions when it did not smash their limbs with a variety of weapons or kneecap them. Those familiar with the history of anti-social activity and the methods used by the IRA to police it, will marvel at the new found compassion expressed in the Andersonstown News. Not that they think refraining from punitive action against wayward youth is a bad thing; just that it is always an experience to observe people coming to love what they once hated.
Few eyebrows would be raised if the local MP, Sinn Fein’s Paul Maskey was to be found making such comments. He never expelled anyone from the community. But the two men who shared their views with the Andersonstown News have been associated in the West Belfast public mind with the practice of exiling for years. To be fair to McCarthy there is a consistency to his position in that he did pursue dialogue and sought to strike deals with people where possible, always willing to consider the least troublesome option for those young people immersed in the morass of anti social activity. Nor was he beyond an appeal for maximum leniency when dealing with these issues. Frequently he did not win the approval of his less tolerant colleagues. But for Finucane, dialogue seemed to be something that needed medical intervention to treat it. His authoritarian view of the world allowed only for a monologue: ‘get out.’
It might help dispel the haze if time were to be taken out to enlighten the community on the new found concern for the city’s supposed delinquents: more so from Finucane than McCarthy. For long enough it was well nigh impossible to find anyone beneath the age of 20 in the particular West Belfast sub culture that so annoyed the Provos who did not resent Seamus Finucane with something approaching the pathological. Memory tells me it was not because he was an advocate on their behalf or concerned about their psychological welfare. His attitude to anti-social youth was summed up in Charles Caleb Colton’s aphorism, ‘we hate some persons because we do not know them; and we will not know them because we hate them.’
Perhaps it could further be explained how there is a difference between the mental problems of young people today and those from an era when Finucane was better known for enforcement than endearment. There were enough young people ending their own lives in that era for him not to have known there was a serious mental health problem that afflicted many West Belfast youth.
With the seeming change of heart on display there exists a good opportunity to enhance public understanding by explaining the context Seamus Finucane refers to. Or is context just alibi? Is the current opposition to expulsions genuinely motivated by concern for the young people targeted or is it fuelled by resentment at the baton being wielded by an IRA other than the Provisional? And if the young of a past era with their broken arms and shattered legs are to be afforded the same concern, retrospectively albeit, can we expect – as alluded to by Sinn Fein national chairperson Declan Kearney - a ‘sorry guys’ from the steps of Connolly House to the legions of joyriders who now drive disability cars rather than stolen ones?