The Hoods

Christopher Owens reviews a book on anti-social activity in West Belfast.

Frustration with a book is as bad as sexual frustration.

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?

Irritatingly, she does not cite a reference for it, and emails to the publisher asking for clarification did not yield any answers.

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.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212


  1. Brendan Hughes used to leave the pub early to avoid ‘hoods’. I always thought that was a stain on Republicans of the area, how shameful they couldn’t protect a blanket man outside of Long Kesh.

  2. Very interesting review. Nepotism, favouritism and lack of forensic science must lead to many miscarriages of justice. Both guilty going free and innocents punished.

    Not unlike every other justice system. It would be interesting to find out comparative rates of miscarriages of justice. I guess we'll never know.

    Cronyism is the scourge of justice from the unofficial system to the smaller local courts al the way up to the International Criminal Court. When was the last time an ally of the US or UK or even themselves sat in the dock of the ICC for war crimes? You want to use white phosphorus on civilians? Sure, go ahead.

    Checks and balances must be in place or people like Stakeknife will do the investigating; practically all of the security force members will evade justice; and the Saudi Arabias And Israels of the planet will evade justice too.

    There needs to be safeguards, checks and balances and transparency and accountability. Whatever happened to the promising restorative justice schemes? I read popularity within Loyalism and association with the police made it unpopular with Republicans. But I guess it couldn't have been as simple as that.

  3. The same day I read your latest book review Chris, I read this piece on Belfast live about a group of youth workers and teenagers made a hard hitting 10 min video about the reality of punishment beatings and how one youth workers finger got lodged in in a victims bullet hole in his ankle...Reminded me of a documentary I seen several years ago about punishment beatings in the 1980's... law of the ghetto, where a father admits to having no choice but to bring his son to pre arranged spot to take a bullet or three. The father admits he tried everything from talking to his son, grounding him, hitting him to make him see sense and in the end he felt he had no choice to teenagers forced into exile in London...................

  4. DaithiD,

    I felt the same whenever Bap McGreevy was murdered.


    considering what we know now about certain cases and the people involved in them, it would be interesting to hear more stories about innocent people being punished for some minor indiscretion, or even being framed altogether. I doubt that'll ever happen, unless there's a follow up to Hamill's findings.


    thanks for those. I like how everyone involved in both programmes were attempting to show the brutal nature of these attacks, whereas "hoods" simply accept it as a kind of initiation and as a way of getting a claim!

  5. Frankie, interesting short.

    Christopher, If there is a follow-up to Hamill's work the author should take on board your thoughts on what is missing. Some important omissions yet an interesting book, by your account, despite this.

  6. Simon,

    yes, it is a shame. She has a great knack for talking about how the "hoods" are very much a product of the culture of West Belfast and how the differ from "proper" street gangs like the Crips and the Bloods. I just wish she'd have pursued some of them more. She does interview some self proclaimed "ex-hoods" who are sometimes a little more articulate in what they say, but it's the ones who are/were knee deep in such behaviour when she was researching that should have been the priority for follow up questions.