Leona O'Neill: It's time to stop rioting and start healing

The recent disturbances involving young loyalists 'protesting' against the Northern Ireland Protocol are yet another example of the self-destructive anti-social behaviour which routinely ruins young lives in the north. However, at least continuing efforts at cross-community work offer a glimmer of hope for the future, writes Leona O'Neill...

Sadly, rioting involving young people in Belfast is nothing new. Picture by Alan Lewis/Photopress
Sadly, rioting involving young people in Belfast is nothing new. Picture by Alan Lewis/Photopress Sadly, rioting involving young people in Belfast is nothing new. Picture by Alan Lewis/Photopress

LAST week, a call went out over social media for loyalists opposed to the Northern Ireland Protocol to gather at the west Belfast interface that was the scene of vicious rioting back in April.

Anyone with eyes could see that it was a horrendously bad idea to hold such a protest at this location. It was, and let's be plain about this, provocative, dangerous and totally reckless.

Regardless of the height of feeling over an issue, holding a protest at a peace line, therefore raising tensions and bringing young people to the area to get involved in rioting was just despicable, unjustified and wrong.

Two teenagers, aged just 12 and 15-years-old were arrested this time. A police officer was also injured during disturbances.

For as long as Northern Ireland has existed, we have sacrificed our young for whatever cause was in the forefront of people's minds. Like all wars, ours achieved nothing except to fill our graveyards and prisons with our young people.

In the rioting our society has so perfected on both sides, it's not the older men and women orchestrating this violence who end up before the courts, it's the teenagers they rile up and send off to fight their battles for them.

It's the young people, often already struggling to navigate life in a socially and economically deprived area, who are burdened with a criminal record that will put further barriers to a job and a good fulfilling life in their way.

They are consistently and deliberately destroying the lives of young people in the communities they claim to represent. They shout their rhetoric, boil the young blood and step back into the shadows and disappear when things inevitably kick off. It's a tale as old as Northern Irish time itself, it plays out again and again like a broken down record player and it's absolutely sickening.

On the same night that images of the old familiar Belfast petrol bombs were beamed across the world as peace line families sat in their homes worried about what the night would bring and police in riot gear cleared the interface areas, a Tweet went out from the account of St Peter's Immaculata Youth Centre in Divis which shone brighter than the burning barricades.

It read simply: "Tonight, 21 young people from Lower Shankill and Lower Falls are on residential together developing friendships and creating the Ambassadors Peace programme plans for the year ahead" and showed young people doing what young people do, sitting around talking, laughing, messing around on their phones. But more than that – making friends, building relationships, breaking down walls and building bridges.

It's not a new occurrence by any stretch of the imagination. Cross-community outreach programmes are common here, but perhaps in the midst of all the hostility, angry rhetoric and increased division of the last few years, we have forgotten about the crucial work that goes on in the background and how important it is to nurture so that these relationships thrive and our future peace is protected.

I followed the Twitter posts of St Peter's all weekend and it made my heart sing. Catholic and Protestant young people on a residential, having fun together, jumping off a pier, taking chances, going kayaking, laughing together and building a strong hope for the future as they were doing it.

It's not the answer to our problems here – I remember cross community residentials happening when I was a teenager – but it's a start, it's something, it's a foundation on which to build on. And it's a damn sight better than calling our young people to peace lines to get killed, hurt or saddled with a criminal record that will weigh them down for life.