Time for paramilitary attacks on children to stop
It's time for the paramilitaries who assault children to leave the stage, says Fr Martin Magill
I recently went to see a performance of Blackout in the Lyric Theatre.
The play is the story of a teenager who makes a series of bad choices which eventually lead to him waking up in a police cell.
We witness his appalling treatment of his mother, his experience of the death of his grandfather, his lonely life and the bad influences of some of his mates. His choices take him from bad to worse.
I found Blackout to be a high energy and professionally acted play, performed by a group of young and talented actors communicating a powerful message.
The performance was then followed by a question and answer session with a panel of three young men who are presently in Hydebank College, the juvenile detention centre.
They answered a series of questions from audience members, some of which were particularly probing.
It felt like one of those times when one could hear a pin drop, such was the rapt attention to their every word.
As I left the Lyric, I met parishioners from a former parish, including a young man who was also in Hydebank. He was due to take part in a later panel discussion.
With the essence of courtesy he talked about how he has turned his life around for the better.
Blackout has been touring schools and youth groups this month, with the performances aimed at a teenage audience.
Reflecting on the experience, I want to congratulate all involved in this innovative approach to rehabilitation: the Hydebank students who found the courage to take part in the panel discussions, and who also gave out programmes and questionnaires; the Lyric for their collaboration with Hydebank College; the Prison Service for attempting it; and the Department of Justice for funding it.
Blackout is one of the more creative approaches being taken to help bring back into society young people who have made bad choices.
I would contrast it with the attitude towards young people being taken by another group - the paramilitaries in our society.
Monday this week was UN International Children's Day, a day for the world to consider the rights and needs of children and young people, with some of us in civic society shining a light on paramilitary and criminal behaviour.
The reality of some who portray themselves as 'community defenders' is the grooming of teenagers into a world of drug dealing and the subsequent taxation of the same teenagers when they have got involved.
Voices in civic society - including the leaders of the main Churches, the Irish Council of Churches, the chief social work officer, the Community Relations Council, the Children's Commissioner, the Department of Justice and the PSNI - were calling for an end to violence against children and young people.
A group of us in the #Stopattacks campaign called for the withdrawing of any support for those engaged in paramilitarism and criminal behaviour.
We also urged people to work with the police to deal with anti-social behaviour.
Thinking back to the three young offenders on the panel and the young man I spoke to at the door of the Lyric, I want to encourage approaches such as it or others being taken in the world of sport as better ways of dealing with our young people who make bad choices.
As for the criminals involved in paramilitary assaults on children and young people as well as on adults, to borrow a phrase from the world of theatre, "it's time they left the stage".
- Fr Martin Magill is parish priest of St John's in Belfast. Together with the Rev Steve Stockman, the minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast, Fr Magill is a founder of the 4 Corners Festival, which aims to promote unity and reconciliation in the midst of Belfast's - and Ireland's - troubled past.
- More information about Blackout, including a workpack, can be found here.