Twenty years on
While a student in Cardiff in 2000, I arrived back at halls in the early hours of the 12th July to the news on radio that someone had been murdered at a bonfire in Larne, my home town. On phoning home, my mother told me that a childhood friend had been shot at our local bonfire in Ferris Park as part of an ongoing dispute between different paramilitary organisations. The impact of that incident had many long-term consequences for the community, and not only the dwindling crowd that attended the once popular bonfire for many years after. The incident brought into sharp focus the social and political issues that affected a small working-class Protestant and loyalist community in Larne, particularly the predicament that many local young people experienced — paramilitarism, unemployment, drugs and alcohol and few positive leaders and role models. These issues were not unique to Ferris Park at the time, and communities across Northern Ireland were grappling with similar problems in one way or another.
The 20th anniversary of that murder is almost upon us, and in many ways things haven’t changed a great deal for young people in Ferris Park. Issues around drugs and alcohol have, if anything, become significantly worse with drugs easily available and affordable from multiple sources. Paramilitarism continues to manifest in the flying of flags, ongoing recruitment of young people, and periodic tensions in the town. Employment opportunities remain few and far between, and there is a legacy of low educational attainment, particularly in young men. In this context, it is unsurprising that mental health problems, self harm and suicide have also increased. As with many communities, the 11th July bonfire provides a focus for young people — from raising money for pallets and collecting to building bonfire huts and the bonfire itself. Young people regularly stay all night at the bonfire and this is often associated with drinking and taking drugs and other risky behaviours, while fights sometimes break out.
Hanging out at the bonfire is in many ways a rites of passage for working-class Protestant young men and where they have some of their most important experiences of growing up and take risks for the first time. In terms of youth work, it provides an extended period in which groups of young people, who lead increasingly unstructured lives and who can be difficult to pin down and involve in activities throughout the year, can be engaged. In Ferris Park, community and youth organisation Factory Community Forum has developed a programme which takes as its starting point engaging with young men at the bonfire. The ‘Gang Response and Anti-Sectarianism Project’ (G.R.A.S.P) was developed in response to an increase in gang related and paramilitary incidents in the town and which was reported on widely in the media. The project aimed to provide young people perceived to be at risk of involvement in gangs or paramilitarism, or who were using or likely to use drugs, with positive alternatives and increased resilience.
The project, developed and led by local youth worker Gareth McConnell, is designed to work with young people over an extended period of a number of years and provide experiences outside of their own area. The first group of young people, who were first identified in June 2018, have visited both Glasgow (2018) and Manchester (2019). In Glasgow, the young people had the opportunity to meet people working to challenge sectarianism in the city, while also taking part in a workshop delivered by someone who was regarded as one of Scotland’s most violent prisoners. In Manchester, they visited the ‘Sting Like a Bee’ project which used boxing to address the growth in knife crime in the city. While in Manchester they took part in a knife crime workshop and had the opportunity to visit Ricky Hatton’s gym and meet the boxer himself. Gareth said, “What we are doing isn’t really rocket science, but its providing young people with experiences and opportunities they’ve never had or are likely to have and they have responded positively to it.”
The majority of the young people who started the programme in June 2018 continue to be involved with it, and throughout the year they take part in different activities and workshops, most recently a drugs and alcohol programme. Gareth continued, “What the impact of the programme will be in the long-term I don’t know, but it is having a difference now which is as much as we can ask for. When I was young and growing up in the estate, nothing like this was on offer, and as a group we are committed to delivering the project in the long-term and are really hopeful about how it will benefit the young people. The initial signs are encouraging and we are now developing our own outreach project that will work every weekend, using trained volunteers, to address the lack of detached youth work in the area.” Visiting the group at one of the drugs and alcohol programme sessions, it was obvious that the young men were interested in what they were hearing. The complexity of the influences they experienced in their everyday lives was also apparent.
Gareth says, “Our project provides young people with some resilience, different experiences, new skills and whatever, which is positive and certainly better than not having them. But we also need to be realistic, the impact is limited if there are no jobs or opportunities for young people, and if the lack of value placed on education in our communities isn’t given attention at a political level, despite what we do locally. There’s nothing more discouraging for a young person than having no long-term prospects despite their effort. ”Factory Community Forum has recently completed a mural project, working with the GRASP group as well as local schools, to promote education and learning. Facing the bonfire site and children’s play park, the mural — on a school wall — replaces graffiti which referenced the recent dispute involving gangs in the town “House-breakers — Tick Tock”. The wall has been used as a noticeboard for warnings of various kinds over the past three decades and the new mural is a welcome change for local people.