Leona O'Neill: We need to break the paramilitaries' strangle-hold on our communities

As new research reveals another generation at the mercy of paramilitaries, Leona O'Neill argues that we won't ever be able to enjoy living in a 'normal' society here in the north until they are dealt with...

New research indicates that paramilitaries still have a grip on our young people
New research indicates that paramilitaries still have a grip on our young people

A GENERATION on from the Good Friday Agreement, young people in Northern Ireland are still being exploited and manipulated by paramilitaries and criminals. These are the findings of a new study into Child Criminal Exploitation carried out by Dr Colm Walsh from Queen’s University Belfast.

The report, From Contextual to Criminal Harm: Young People’s Perceptions and Experiences of Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) in Northern Ireland, explored young people’s perceptions and experiences of criminal exploitation. 

The research was carried out over a four-month period in 2021/2022 with a total of 44 young people between the ages of 16 and 18 taking part in in-depth focus group interviews across Northern Ireland. 

Exposure to violence, including being witness to and/or a victim of it, appeared to be a normal part of life for these young participants, and had become so normalised that even when they had experienced harm, they often failed to recognise their victimisation.  

When asked about specific examples of when they had experienced (directly or indirectly) violence related harm, every young person could provide examples and these were situated within the context of their local areas, often within a few yards of their own homes. One participant described their first experience of higher harm violence when they were only four years old.

Other stark findings of the research include:

  • Paramilitarism was intimately connected to child criminal exploitation. 
  • A number of young people had been actively groomed to engage in criminality over a prolonged period of time. 
  • Others were engaged in a more agile way, exploited for a particular purpose and for a specific period of time, with the spring 2021 riots foremost in several focus group members’ minds. 
  • A minority of young people living in specific areas believed that paramilitaries provided a protective function and that they were generally safer with those networks in place. 
  • Boys and young men were generally believed to be more actively involved in violent criminality and that young women were actively engaged in more subtle forms of abuse and exploitation. 
  • Few young people had ever approached another adult for help, despite most having had at least one experience when they felt at significant risk of harm.
Children were involved in loyalist rioting in Belfast in 2021. Picture by Alan Lewis/Photopress
Children were involved in loyalist rioting in Belfast in 2021. Picture by Alan Lewis/Photopress

 Speaking about the research findings, Dr Walsh said it was an "important but sobering study".  

“This is the first study of its kind in the Northern Ireland context documenting the perceptions and experiences of child criminal exploitation,” he said.

“Their voices illustrate the ways that some children and young people are being failed by a range of statutory agencies and how these missed opportunities to protect, provide others with opportunities to exploit for their own criminal gain.”

The research was funded by the Northern Ireland Executive’s Tackling Paramilitary Activity, Criminality and Organised Crime Programme. The Programme works across Northern Ireland to prevent and reduce paramilitary and criminal harm and violence. It invests in over 80 projects, delivered across the Executive by statutory agencies and partners in the voluntary and community sector. 

The findings are shocking and must be acted upon. How can we sincerely celebrate 25 years of the Good Friday Agreement when yet another generation, the one after the Ceasefire babies, are being lost and will continue to be lost to paramilitary influence? None of us should stand for this.  

If we truly want to honour the Good Friday Agreement, if we truly want a normal, fully functioning and progressive society here in Northern Ireland, we need to loosen the strangle hold paramilitary organisations have on our communities. And that is not going to happen if we keep turning away because it’s not on our doorstep, it doesn’t impact on us directly or it’s just easier to keep things the way they always were.  

It takes courage to change things. And there is no shortage of that around here.