'Riots will lead new generation to jail'

Four former loyalist and republican prisoners have told UTV the street riots could take another generation to jail or to the grave.

Published 16/01/2013 12:00

Violence has flared across parts of Northern Ireland during the past seven weeks, since changes were made to the flag policy at Belfast City Hall.

Around 100 police officers have been hurt and over 110 people have been arrested, including children as young as 13.

Four men who know the reality of conflict - between them spending more than 60 years in jail on the IRA and loyalist wings - gathered around the table to discuss the flags issue as well as equality, leadership, myths and perception.

Alistair Little is a former loyalist prisoner who served 12-and-a-half years in jail.

He said if the rioting is not brought to an end it could lead to loss of life.

"Anywhere there's violence there's a chance for that to escalate completely out of hand where someone does lose their life," he said.

Most of the young people haven't lived through the worst of the conflict and don't know the suffering on both sides

Alistair Little

"That will thrust us into a completely different scenario. I think there are people out there who wouldn't lose too much sleep if someone was killed - but I think they're a minority.

"Most people, especially those who have lived through the conflict, know the human cost."

The term 'ceasefire soldiers' has been used to describe those who are too young to have had any part in the Troubles but are fighting in the peace.

Michael Culbert argued that there is a responsibility to explain the consequences that can arise from getting involved in street violence.

"Within the political ex-prisoner community we go around a lot of schools and a lot of youth groups and talk to young people," said the former republican prisoner of 16 years.

"They're pretty perceptive, not stupid, but sometimes they can be enticed to do things without giving a lot of thought to it.

"But I'll give credit where it's due - there are a lot of loyalist ex prisoners on the streets who work very hard to get people away."

I would be pleased to see them doing road blocks if it was to do with welfare reform but what does the political leadership of Unionism do? Take them out on the street about a flag

Michael Culbert

John Howcroft, who spent 12 years in jail for involvement in the UDA, said the challenge is getting youths to listen.

He likened it to the situation when he was a young man.

"When I look back to that period when I was a young man and being influenced, it's not people that influence you so much as situations you see erupting on the streets and injustices you perceive," he explained.

"But I wouldn't have listened to anyone at that age so how can we transfer that learning so people do listen?

"People feel angry and we understand why - the whole perception their British identity is being eroded. I think politicians have to watch their language across the board not to enflame the situation."

Meanwhile Séanna Walsh, who was an IRA prisoner for 21 years, said young people are being told myths about their socio-economic situation.

He argued that this is feeding into the trouble.

"I believe a lot of the young people are being fed myths that the people who are the bottom of the pile in regards to the socio-economic situation," he said.

"They're told that these young loyalists are worse off than the young people living 100 yards away in the Short Strand are," he said. "And it's not true.

"There is this reinforcement of myths that they're constantly losing out but somebody needs to stand up and tell them that they're not."

Politicians and community leaders are continuing to work to find a resolution to the flags dispute against a backdrop of ongoing protests.

The message from the four ex-prisoners was not to take another generation on the road to jail.

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