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Thursday, 6 February, 2003, 20:54 GMT
Children of the loyalist feud
Soldier patrol in Shankill
The loyalist violence has escalated

Children as young as five are taking tranquillisers to cope with the fall-out from the bitter loyalist feud in Belfast.

Some have lost their fathers, others have lost their friends.

What is more, many have lost their childhood.

School teachers looking at their pupils' jotters have been shocked at what they have seen - drawings of a man hanging himself, guns with bullets dripping in blood, are just some examples.

Charlene Daly was injured in 2000 in an attack linked to the loyalist feud
We work with children who've witnessed some terrible things, children who have had to leave their homes in the middle of the night

Cathy Bell
NSPCC
They may have young minds, but these children are living in a world which, if it was a film, would be certificate 18.

No-one sensible would willingly put them through it.

Two six-year-olds were recently overheard talking about how they were going to kill the notorious Shankill loyalist Johnny Adair.

So why are little boys openly talking about murder, rather than football, toys or sweets?

Well, just look around the Shankill. On almost every street corner there are gunmen, painted on gable walls.

Child counselling

Added to the typical inner city problems of poverty and deprivation, is rampant paramilitarism.

The same is also true of some nearby republican areas.

The NSPCC is trying to do something about it.

Cathy Bell leads a team working in schools in the Greater Shankill area.

"We work with children who've witnessed some terrible things, children who have had to leave their homes in the middle of the night," she said.

A Catholic child en route to Holy Cross School
Catholic children have also been caught up in the violence
"We're providing individual counselling as well as classroom work."

The sudden exodus of families from the lower Shankill Road on Wednesday night has created another set of problems.

The sting may have been drawn from the loyalist feud, but for children in the area it is still a traumatic time.

Kids arrived at school on Thursday morning to find that some of their classmates were absent, never to return.

Rather than in a classroom, they were touring the west coast of Scotland with their parents looking for somewhere to live.

Stress and confusion

Among them were the children of Johnny Adair, who has been at the centre of the most recent feud.

While Adair lies in prison in Northern Ireland, his wife, Gina, and their children are trying to build a new life across the sea.

Cathy Bell said children who find themselves in this kind of situation end up feeling insecure, stressed and confused.

"Some naively blame themselves for the predicament they are in," she said.

"Their little world has collapsed in many ways.

Paint was thrown over murals in the area
Murals in the Shankill have been defaced
"Their school has been their school since they were four ... a school where they know their friends, they know their teacher then in the middle of the night they're told they have to leave and go elsewhere."

Often behavioural problems start, or get worse.

The children become aggressive, they shout a lot, or, in some cases, become totally withdrawn. Few are unscathed.

In the greater Shankill area, some children aged five have been prescribed anti-depressant tablets.

They are the innocent victims of loyalist paramilitarism. The world they know is filled with violence.

They deserve peace - but they barely get a chance to learn how to spell it.

See also:

06 Feb 03 | N Ireland
06 Feb 03 | Scotland
06 Feb 03 | N Ireland
04 Feb 03 | N Ireland
08 Dec 02 | N Ireland
17 Jan 03 | N Ireland
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