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Friday, 7 September, 2001, 15:24 GMT 16:24 UK
Counting the cost against the children
A child playing by a north Belfast barricade
Born into conflict: A child in north Belfast
By BBC News Online's Dominic Casciani in Belfast

When the political leaders of Northern Ireland, the UK and the Republic of Ireland got down to trying to find a way out of 30 years of division, they were at least agreed on one thing: this was something for the children.

The past week's scenes in Ardoyne may have had a fresh potency as they were transmitted around the world. But throughout the Troubles children and teenagers have been at the forefront of the conflict.

A child crying at Holy Cross school
Holy Cross: Children in the spotlight
Some of the most detailed work on their experiences has been carried out by the The Cost of the Troubles Study, now part of the new Institute for Conflict Research.

Young people dominate the death toll of the Troubles, with almost a quarter of all those killed aged between 18 and 23. Almost 6% of those killed between 1969 and 1998 were aged between 12 and 17 - 210 youngsters.

In a 2000 study, it found that more than half had been caught up in rioting and that almost 17% had personally witnessed a shooting.

Almost a third said that they had seen someone killed or seriously injured. One in 10 said this had happened more than once. Some 45% of young people reported that they felt endangered when straying somewhere perceived as the "wrong area".

Almost a fifth said that friendships or relationships had ended or been disrupted because of sectarian division.

Deaths by age (1969-1998)
0-5: 23
6-11: 24
12-17: 210
18-23: 898
Dr Marie Smyth, chief executive of the Institute for Conflict Research, said that research demonstrated that young people had always been at the heart of the Troubles, especially at its epicentre of north and west Belfast.

"The research shows that around the age of 11, boys become much more active on the streets," she said.

"The dangers of being caught up in street violence begin to rise, though they begin a little later with the girls.

"Experiences of the Troubles are woven into the fabric of life in areas such as Ardoyne.

"People learn to minimise the problem as much as possible so that they can cope with just living their lives. They push the experiences underground.

"Things that you bury tend to grow. They come back at you with a force redoubled."

Private grief, public property

Another factor in this is how private grief becomes public property, said Dr Smyth.

A boy guards a bonfire in a Protestant area of Belfast
A boy guards a bonfire in a Protestant area of Belfast
In many instances children who had lost a loved one grew up with a changed identity as the community re-labeled them as "X whose father was killed by Y" rather than just X as they had been before.

"Private grief becomes an icon for one community or the other because it represents a community's history," said Dr Smyth.

"So you may have a child who is grieving the loss of a parent but part of that experience does not belong to them.

"All of this adds to an 'impossibility of childhood', something that we see in many places around the world including Africa.

"You are a child without experiencing childhood. Childhood as we would like to see it requires a time of peace and plenty.

That's something that is long gone in Ardoyne."

Capacity to cope

Dr Nicola Rooney, a clinical psychologist at the Royal Hospitals, Belfast, said that a child's individual capacity to cope with trauma or crisis determined whether or not they would suffer psychological damage.

Every parent wants to elongate childhood. But a child must learn as quickly as possible who are friends and who are enemies

Dr Marie Smyth
"The most worrying thing is that these are ongoing experiences," she said.

"I would hope that children would have the resilience to recover from these kinds of things.

"But the fact that they know that they may have to go through the same experiences tomorrow means that there is no real sense of relief for them."

Repeated trauma is more likely to cause long-term psychological difficulties, said Dr Rooney.

"The most important thing for parents is to listen to the children and what they have to say about that they have seen.

"They will have their own fantasies and ideas of what this has all been about.

"Adults have to take what they say seriously and then reassure the children that they are not to blame for what has happened."

Parents' dilemma

Short of leaving Northern Ireland, there has only been so much that parents could do to protect their children from the worst of the Troubles.

But, says Marie Smyth, this gets to the heart of the dilemma that parents have faced over 30 years of conflict.

"Every parent wants to protect their child and elongate childhood for as long as possible.

"But as a basic matter of survival, a child must learn as quickly as possible who are friends and who are enemies so they can protect themselves when you as a parent are not there.

"That is essentially the dilemma at the heart of loving. There are some very big questions that we as adults have to answer.

"How do we explain to the children the world that we have created?"

Links to more Northern Ireland stories are at the foot of the page.

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