In your mind, you envisage the perfect scenario, where all avenues are explored, every action thoroughly probed and you're left exhilarated and exhausted at the sheer magnitude of the task at hand.
First published in 2011 (but reprinted this year in paperback), Heather Hamill's book examines the culture of West Belfast, why it breeds a particular type of anti social character, and why the IRA's punishment beatings/shootings do not deter such people. This, naturally, should make for fascinating reading.
However, with Hamill's research period took place between 1995 and 2006, we stumble across a problem: this misses the Mairia Cahill case, which has highlighted just how "problematic" the IRA's justice system can be in very grim detail. As a result, the book itself can seem like Hamlet without the prince.
Nonetheless, The Hoods has a hell of a lot of information and thoughts that can be chewed over without having to consider the Cahill case.
Opening with a discussion of the culture and history of West Belfast, Hamill makes it clear that this is a tight, close knit neighbourhood which functions outside mainstream society due to high unemployment and legacy issues with the state of Northern Ireland (the notion of knowing someone who can "get it" for you at a reduced rate). As a result, whenever law and order breaks down, the locals take it among themselves to sort things out.
Discussing the various vigilante types (like DAAD) who have popped up over the years post ceasefire, Hamill makes the (undoubtedly correct) assertion that Sinn Fein have authority over them, otherwise they wouldn't have been able to operate in the way they did. Hence, when they go too far, Sinn Fein can plausibly deny a role.
Of course, all of this stretches back to the IRA's own punishment squads and their own roots in the community. Hamill does allow people to claim that some in these squads were once "hoods" themselves, but this is put down to a minority. Oddly, no mention of the squad in the Short Strand (around the time of the Robert McCartney murder) that supposedly had someone guilty of sexual violence in their ranks.
Moving on to discussing the "hoods" themselves, by detailing their crimes, livelihoods and hobbies (drink and drugs feature heavily), this segment is both illuminating and hilarious at the same time. This is because, as we know, "hoods" generally aren't known for their articulate views (one, when asked why he doesn't like the IRA, described them as "...dirty, stinkin' bastards") and, as a result, what we get are statements that are minimal on word usage, but excel in blunt delivery.
I must admit, I had a good chuckle at the revelation that "hoods" really, really hate it when the IRA put them on curfew or order them out of the country: "...the four objected bitterly to the restriction on their movements and the resulting boredom: 'You can't really do much on an eight o'clock curfew other than smoke blow, watch football. That's it,' said Georgie (age 21). Micky (age 18) added, 'I'm on an eight o'clock curfew. I'm not allowed to run about with my friends. What am I supposed to do all night...bein' treated like a child for somethin' I didn't do.'"
Clearly, Judith Ward, the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four have nothing on these lads!
The same attitudes comes through when people are ordered out of the country. Here, conversely, Hamill does make a good point that, cut off from their families and further highlighting their poor social skills, it's no wonder "hoods" struggle with this punishment. As well as this, with a greater drug problem in England, some feel they'll actually end up worse in such situations than in their home city.
The final chapter deals with the unionist/loyalist side of West Belfast and why punishment beatings/shootings tend to be reserved for paramilitaries who have stepped out of line rather than "hoods." This is put down to a combination of that community having faith in the police and the fact that it's easy for these types to join loyalist paramilitaries. Personally, I am of the impression that, while there is truth in that statement, it's not always as clean cut as that.
I recall hearing a story about an old school acquaintance, who had a flat in the Woodvale area of the city and had a bad habit of holding all night parties. From what I was told, said acquaintance was visited by the UDA and given two options: either join them or take a beating. He opted for the latter.
This tale, if true, seems to indicate a view on the UDA's part that, by joining them, they would have rid him of his anti-social behaviour and trained him into a disciplined soldier. A form of national service, if you will. Which creates an interesting contrast to the IRA, who see themselves as only allowing 'suitable' candidates to join.
She does admit that beatings/shootings do happen to "hoods", but uses a quote from Sammy Duddy to show how the police ended up putting the onus on the loyalist paramilitaries to deal with such crimes, because the police would often encourage the "hoods" to inform on the paramilitaries. Ironically, by revealing this, Duddy gives credence to the Provo's claim to be the only voice of law and order in West Belfast. After all, if the police are only going to use "hoods" to spy on paramilitaries and let them off the hook for their criminal behaviour, why approach them?
Due to necessity, Hamill did not conduct thoroughly probing interviews (she describes the end result as having come from "...unstructured discussions and semi structured interviews..."). Although it's understandable (due to the unwillingness and legalities of people recording stories onto tape), it is frustrating, as certain quotes just cry out for elaboration. Take this one:
Angela's offense was drug dealing...Two of her uncles ran sizeable drug dealing operations...She believed that her sentence was relatively lenient, however, because her estranged father had powerful 'connections' with the IRA and had protected her for as long as he could.
Now, this is a pretty serious allegation to make (although one that is believable), considering the IRA's openly stated stance on drug dealers. Here is an opportunity to explore how the IRA were not immune from corruption, as well as the growing power of drug dealers in the city. Unfortunately, Hamill drops the subject and talks about something else.
Another example is how most of the "hoods" that Hamill interviews report having poor relationships with their parents (fathers in particular), yet a good lot of the "hoods" themselves are parents to small children and have no interest in them! Surely this contradiction calls for further discussion on the cycle of abandonment and how it leads to anti social behaviour?
Exasperatingly, certain angles aren't explored at all: the role of "hoods" as £10 touts by the police, claims being issued for shootings/beatings as well as corruption in the IRA ranks. These are serious issues that deserve to be discussed in a book like this.
Finally, Hamill offers us the following paragraph:
In the early 1980's, Loyalist paramilitaries exploded a bomb at a Republican funeral in the Ardoyne area of North Belfast, raising existing IRA suspicions that the organisation had been compromised. The leak was traced to Na Fianna Eireann and, according to Sinn Fein, further investigation revealed that the police had managed to penetrate deep into the IRA's youth wing. Na Fianna Eireann was subsequently disbanded...
Once again, a very serious claim to make, and one that runs against the grain of Troubles research (it's generally accepted that the Fianna split with the Provos in 1986, aligning themselves with Republican Sinn Fein). So where does Hamill get this tale?
Having spoken to Anthony McIntyre, Gareth Mulvenna, Iain Turner and various residents of North Belfast, the only such incident that could be universally agreed on was Trevor McKibben's funeral, where Sean Campbell was killed. The problem here was that this happened in 1977, so it couldn't have been that. Interestingly, it was thought by certain people in the area that Campbell was a member of Na Fianna Eireann, however he was never claimed by the organisation and is listed as a civilian in Lost Lives.
Is it possible that Hamill has maybe conflated the above with another incident?
Realistically, this book should have been 600 pages in length (as opposed to 200) as a topic like anti social behaviour in a post war zone like West Belfast and how it is policed is far too vast to fit concisely into a small book.
It's certainly worth reading, and there is plenty in there to discuss and consider, but it could have been so much more.
Heather Hamill, 2011, The Hoods: Crime and Punishment in West Belfast, Princeton University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0691119632
➽ Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
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