15 February 2001 Edition

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Long-term solutions to anti-social behaviour

``People talk of anti-social behaviour as a new problem. It is not. It just appears new because it is currently the focus of attention. In fact, anti-social behaviour arises from the same causes that gave rise to the conflict, and remain unresolved. But such behaviour has the potential to tear our communities apart. What the Brits and RUC have failed to do in 30 years - the destruction of the structure, the fabric, the integrity of our community - we weren't going to let happen now, in the new

Some 30,000 people live in Poleglass, Twinbrook and Laganmore, representing one third of the constituency of West Belfast. Poleglass was built in line with British General Frank Kitson's counter-insurgency strategy, with one way in and one way out, each estate sporting colour coded roofs for easy identification by spotter planes. It was designed to break down community strength.

Its 10,000 inhabitants are drawn largely from those displaced people driven out of their old communities through shortage of houses. They came in desperation often into half built houses, just to get somewhere to live. They came from Ballymurphy or the Short Strand, people who had grown up together in an environment with a strong community spirit.

In Poleglass this was absent and had to be built. Bit by bit, community strength was built through solidarity, protest, active support of neighbours in the face of daily house raids and incursions. Bit by bit, as community strength grew, it became more difficult to raid houses, arrest people or intimidate them. But poverty and discrimination was and is rife, with anti-social behaviour a continuous undercurrent.

Poleglass is peripheral in every sense. It is excluded and marginalised under the strongly loyalist-dominated Lisburn Council area. 57% of the people are under 18, yet there is not one playground in the area. Lisburn Council has a budget of £3.5 million. Only £500 is spent in this constituency because there is nothing to maintain.

``Anti-social behaviour mushroomed out of the marginalisation, discrimination and inequality in our community. It was a problem for all of us.

Our first objective was to get all the people, local groups and agencies within the community to take responsibility, to generate a collective ownership of the problem and its solution. Instead of dumping the whole issue into the lap of the IRA, all the community sectors had to recognise that they were part of the problem, in that each had failed in their obligations to provide for youth, and had therefore to be a part of the solution.

We brought every sector together, the Catholic Church, the business sector, education and youth services, health, welfare, elderly people, disabled people and so on, and asked them to `brainstorm' in group meetings and come back with what they were going to do. Out of this came a community strategy to confront the problems. All the groups were involved in this partnership which, ultimately, was going to have to confront inequality and discrimination against our commmunity.

Then we built a street campaign to turn the negative images of the area to positive, mobilising people to take ownership of their community and to put out to young people a positive message. This came to be called the `Pride of Poleglass'. We had clean-ups, wiping off the graffiti, planting trees and flowers, getting the burnt out stolen cars removed, helping each other, as we'd done on the raids, to repair damage to property. If the flower beds were destroyed then people put them back again: when the graffiti went up again, then we removed it. It was something everyone could be involved in.

Through simple easy steps, people were taking control of their community, and building a positive mindset out of the negative horror of continuous and fearful attack from the alienated and violent bands of often quite young people armed with cars.

At the same time, in partnerships with the `responsible' agencies, we put a ``care package'' around the kids who were involved in ``anti-social activity'', which involved the family, the youth, education, training and social welfare agencies. The people who worked in Community Restorative Justice (CRJ), who come from the community themselves, were often the key link between agencies and family. They were the conduit of the programme.

The problem of anti-social youth is rarely a simple isolated problem of a child who is disruptive and uncontrollable. Its solution concerned all the agencies, not just those responsible for youth. The 15-year-old kid who was bored, didn't go to school, slept all day and went out to destroy all night, who was uncontrollable, invariably came from a family which itself was the victim of aspects of social disadvantage. These problems included unemployment, poverty, alcoholism, health problems, abusive family relations, and denial.

In some few cases, we could not achieve co-operation within the care package and anti-social behaviour persisted. In such situations, the community itself, confident and positive, ostracised them. The irreconcilables were ostracised by the community. 6' by 4' posters went up. There were marches to their doors. No one would serve them; the shops, the pubs, the people ostracised them. People combined to made life intolerable for those who had made it intolerable for the community.

And the media got the right priorities. That lobby that attempts to exploit anti-social behaviour to isolate republicans from the community never got a look in. For once, we, as a community, were seen as the victims.

We now had a partnership between agencies and different sectors, including business and community, to deliver a youth provision. This gave us a framework to confront the central issue of inequality and the social deprivation of the area. We need youth resources, jobs and skill training, projects that will build capacity in a alienated community.

The Good Friday Agreement promises to address discrimination and inequality. Section 75 of the Local Government Act of 1998 requires that every statutory agency and local government provide equality schemes. Lisburn Council, like all councils, is required to target social need (TSN). We need to demand the peace dividend we are due and secure an equitable distribution of mainstream government funding and European Peace II funding.

But this won't happen unless the community fights for it. Where the council does not meet its TSN obligations, we need to take it to court, to protest on the streets. The partnership structure that involves the whole community in Poleglass needs to win the peace to make peace become a reality.

The struggle remains the same. It is to empower communities to take ownership, to work to achieve equality, and to build the programmes needed to address the social problems which arise from inequality.

It's a long term problem requiring long term solutions. There are no quick fixes.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1