16 January 1997 Edition
`Joyriding' scourge of the community
Three hundred stolen cars recovered
As so-called `joyriding' has once again hit epidemic levels in parts of West Belfast, residents in the Twinbrook and Poleglass areas have decided to unite and stop the activities of those involved in stealing and wrecking cars, and jeopardising the lives of local people.
Over the Christmas and New Year period over 300 stolen cars were recovered from the West Belfast area. The `joyriders' damaged property, were involved in near-death collisions with road users, terrorised residents with dangerous driving, and in one case rammed an ambulance on the Stewartstown Road.
The road is now notorious at weekends for drug dealers meeting at a local garage. The numbers standing in the meeting place, which is less than a mile from Woodbourne RUC barracks, have on occasion exceeded 200 people.
Large numbers of youths, some under 12 years old, congregate from all parts of West Belfast in Twinbrook and Poleglass with carryouts, standing at walkways, shops and street corners to see stolen cars give a `show' to an impressionable audience. Residents are claiming that the `joyriders' take part in this anti-social behaviour under the eye of the RUC.
Twinbrook and Poleglass are situated on the outskirts of West Belfast but under the control of Lisburn Borough Council. They have a combined population of over 15,000 residents, the largest demographic growth area in the Borough of Lisburn. 49% of the Poleglass population is under the age of 17; in the case of Twinbrook it is 33%. Together they have long term unemployment levels in excess of 60% with little or no facilities for anyone, especially the youth.
``Despite the social and economic deprivation the nationalist areas of Twinbrook and Poleglass they still have a wealth of community spirit. The communities of both areas can be commended for their efforts to maintain the area. It is to the credit of our community that the social problems are less than they could be,'' said Sinn Fein Councillor for Twinbrook, Annie Armstrong.
Infuriated and frustrated residents who had had enough organised a public meeting on Wednesday 8 January and over 1500 people packed the Civic Centre at the Dairy Farm shopping complex to voice their concerns. The huge turnout, which surprised almost everybody, was addressed by a broad section of political representatives including Sinn Féin's Michael Ferguson, Annie Armstrong and Pat Rice and SDLP MP Joe Hendron as well as members of the probation service, community workers and Housing Executive.
The highly charged meeting heard from young and old residents who told how they have had enough of Lisburn Borough Council, British government bodies and the RUC treating them as second-class citizens and expressed their disgust at how, in the words of one resident, ``hoods who are in a minority are able to intimidate the people of the area''.
People called for hoods to be beaten, tarred and feathered, their names displayed publicly, and for anyone harbouring them to be forced out of the area.
However, Annie Armstrong called on people to remain calm, saying: ``We have an opportunity to develop a non-violent approach to this problem. It needs to be a community approach.''
One man who spoke to An Phoblacht and asked that his name not be used, told of travelling on the Stewartstown Road recently and being stopped by the RUC:
``I pointed out to the RUC that joyriders were doing handbrake turns less than 400 yards down the road and asked why I was being held when the car thieves were being allowed to do what they wanted.
``They aggressively told me to get out of the car. They searched it and checked it then gave me an on-the-spot fine for a motoring offence.
``I was disgusted at SDLP representative Joe Hendron's response to `joyriding', especially his call to involve `local police'. The man is either a complete idiot or living in a different world.''
A teenager from Twinbrook pointed out that many young people in the area face unemployment, lack of amenities and discrimination but the majority don't turn to crime: ``Why should all young people of this area be brought down by hoods, thugs and drug dealers? I believe we should put them out of the area.''
Another man accused the Housing Executive of dumping unwanted tenants in the area and exacerbating the problem: ``They have been forced out of other areas and end up here.''
One woman angrily pointed out that a number of people were nearly killed by `joyriders' after being involved in smashes with stolen cars. Just before Christmas six members of one family were injured after a stolen Vauxhall Astra crashed head-on into their car on the Andersonstown Road: ``Many people have nearly been killed and innocent people have died in the past as a result of this so-called joyriding. It must be stopped, parents must take more responsibility for their children's actions.''
Bertie Scapatticci, a youth worker involved in the Lynx project run by the Probation Service in Twinbrook agreed with Councillor Armstrong's call for a coordinated peaceful community response. He told An Phoblacht :
``The Lynx project involves young people in recreational activities, it really does have an impact. We have 50 to 60 kids involved in Lynx and they all stay away from crime. There is a percentage of ex-offenders involved but we want to see more joining, all youth in the area are welcome. We're partly funded by the Probation Service, but we urgently require further funding to expand our operation. There's just not enough money available at the minute, we need a female member of staff for young girls who may be involved in crime and recreation facilities in the area for young people are practically non-existent because of lack of funding from statutory bodies.''
Joe McClenaghan, a voluntary community worker in one of the two non-funded youth clubs in the area maintained that young offenders can be reformed:
``I've worked with these young people, some of them are great lads if given half a chance. They will certainly not be reformed by punishment attacks, it just doesn't work. I totally disagree with the crimes they commit, but using violent methods to resolve the issue will not work.''
After last Wednesday's public meeting residents vowed to organise community watch patrols in an effort to put an end to the latest joyriding scourge. One man from Laurel Bank in Poleglass told An Phoblacht:
``A sizeable crowd stands at the shops, they're mostly kids and don't do any harm but the older ones are the real bad ones. People are afraid to walk past them because they hurl abuse and throw empty cider bottles after them. On several occasions myself and a few neighbours confronted them but they just threatened us. I have no intention of hitting anybody.
``The crowd start arriving at around 8pm and stand until the early hours, usually until the cars are burnt out. The fire brigade are never out of this place, I don't know what happens if there's a real emergency. I've spoken to several firemen attending burning cars and they say it's a real waste of resources and are fed up with the problem themselves''
``The worst thing about the whole situation is that the RUC sit less than 500 yards away in their armoured Landrovers and refuse to tackle the problem. I wasn't in any way politically aware before, so I didn't understand what was going on, but I have a good idea now. This really does divide the community and this suits a lot of people. It is common knowledge that RUC use `joyriders' as low level informers and offer them absolute immunity to do what they want. These young people need to be educated, we don't need the RUC, but we do need them to leave the people alone to sort out the problem ourselves.''
Despite the public outrage shown at the meeting, some `joyriders' were undeterred by the anger of the community; while the meeting was going on they defiantly drove cars on the road outside the community centre.
In the early hours of Friday 10 January, `joyriders' burnt a stolen Volkswagen Golf just feet from the front door of Mill Court old people's home on the Falls Road. An employee said she was totally disgusted that anybody would do such a thing:
``I've residents in here that are over 80 years old, their lives were put at risk. Two young men parked the car, burnt it and casually walked down the Falls Road. I phoned the emergency services. The Fire Brigade were out in minutes. Two hours have gone past and the RUC still haven't arrived''.
Andersonstown RUC Barracks is less than a quarter of a mile away from Mill Court nursing home.
A large number of Poleglass residents, outraged by the `joyriders' lack of respect for the welfare of the community, went to houses in the area and told families to leave. This was opposed by both Sinn Fein councillors in the area;
``We Sinn Fein are totally opposed to undisciplined vigilantes. It is very dangerous and can easily get out of control, but we would endorse a well disciplined and well organised community based watch,'' said Annie Armstrong.
A man on nightly patrol told An Phoblacht:
``With the lack of a credible police force, people have had to patrol their own areas. Since last week's meeting in the civic centre we now have organised nightly patrols. This has nothing do with any political parties or any paramilitary organisations. We aren't vigilantes, this is the community working together to stamp out crime. People have just had enough. At the start things were heated and people were doing stupid things, but now things have calmed down. We intend to do our best to curb joyriding, large crowds of youths standing about drinking, drug dealing and all sorts of anti-social behaviour going on. I would advise any area having similar problems to do the same.''
What is the Solution?
Poleglass Sinn Fein Councillor Michael Ferguson told An Phoblacht :
``There are no quick answers to resolving the problems of car theft/joyriding or under age drinking and drug abuse.
``These are symptomatic of social, economic deprivation, none of which is self imposed but rather inflicted by the sectarian nature of Lisburn Council, the neglect of statutory agencies, funding bodies and a government concerned with employing policies of deprivation as part of a wider anti-nationalist strategy.
``We need further funding to set up projects to help teenagers and prevent them from turning to crime. We also urge parents to be aware of their children's habits, it is very important that parents be very vigilant at this time''.
``Local clubs in the area have a certain responsibility for what's happening, because it is important to remember that underage drinking and drugs contribute to `joyriding', vandalism and general abuse of an area. We are insisting that local pubs, clubs and off-sales do not sell alcohol to underage drinkers and any alcohol to people of any age after closing time''.
``To deal with the problem we have to have short-term measures as well as a long-term strategy. These include providing more youth clubs and community centres. There has to be investment from council and statutory agencies such as IDB, DED, LEDU and MBW. The DOE must get their act together. My latest meeting with the Road Services on Tuesday 14 January was very heated. It indicated the total disregard they have for this community. They must install speed reduction ramps and proper road crossings in the areas.''