Prods, paramilitaries and poverty…

AFTER loyalists met with the Secretary of State to find out how to ‘come in from out of the cold’ (or whatever this week’s euphemism is for ‘doing what everyone else does normally’), the BBC takes a look at the issue of deprivation in ‘protestant areas’, while Suzanne Breen examines why low incomes shouldn’t necessarily mean miserable kids.It would be difficult to argue with politicians – even those linked to the paramilitary/criminal mafia-style gangs that the UDA and UVF have become – about the need for investment in deprived ‘protestant areas’. However, it is not hard to see why that lack of investment exists – because of the UVF and UDA.

Why on earth would a business build new premises in certain parts of East Belfast, for example, only for a pink cardigan-wearing medallion-clad spide with a gun to come down in a big red BMW and demand a few grand for ‘security’? Why would anyone in their right mind risk the future of their business in an area where armed robbery, rioting or arson is a regular occurrence? Has anyone asked the thousands of Protestants who have left why they are leaving Belfast and empty houses in their wake?

Why would the Government fund schemes when it knows the money is being poured into the pockets of paramilitaries? Oh wait – it tried that already, enabling upstanding ‘community workers’ like convicted terrorism director Johnny Adair to enjoy a few more hours in the gym before signing on and flogging a few pills at the back of the community centre.

We all know paramilitaries benefit from Government initiatives, and news this week that the Government may now fund some form of loyalist ‘security’ company is concerning. Why do we have an Organised Crime Task Force and Assets Recovery Agency on one hand, if extortion and racketeering are being legitimised – if not legalised and supported by the Government and funded by taxpayers – on the other?

Anyway, are Ulster’s Young Militants or Young Citizen Volunteers really going to be drawn away from a lucrative career in dealing drugs, an exciting evening petrol-bombing Pakistani restaurant owners, putting up flags where they are not wanted and painting murals of gunmen with the promise of a job sitting in a shed on a building site all night for minimum wage?

But there are good reasons to treat the situation seriously too. Deprived ‘loyalist areas’ such as the Shankill have incredibly low educational achievement levels in the young male population. The heavy industries are disappearing, and many jobs in Harland & Wolff or Shorts are long gone. Long ago, nationalist leaders recognised that education is one important way forward, a point that loyalist politicians seem to recognise, but which little has been done about.

So I can accept that there is a need to improve opportunities and educational attainment levels in ‘loyalist areas’, and it would be wrong to label all schemes as dubious. Strange then how unionists in the UUP and DUP think retaining the 11-Plus exam will somehow improve the chances for the average Shankill teenager – it won’t. It isn’t working now and hasn’t done for many years. At least the PUP recognises this.

The thing is – the world owes no-one a living, and it is difficult to feel sympathy for politicians holding out the begging bowl when the reason they need to do so is at least partly because of the control and malevolent influence their infighting paramilitary friends exercise over their own community. There is no public confidence in schemes that seem to benefit paramilitaries at the expense of their own communities.

In her News Letter column, Suzanne Breen looks at poverty here more generally, but concludes that inequality should not be used as an excuse for everything. Yes, she writes, children on the Shankill are born into circumstances where they won’t have the same opportunities as kids in North Down. But when a Save the Children survey suggests that one in five children in NI doesn’t get fresh fruit or vegetables or basic clothing “then what on earth are their parents doing?”

Suzanne writes: “Are apples, oranges, bananas, cauliflower, cabbage, and carrots more expensive than other groceries?

“Of course, the more you earn, the more varied and interesting your family’s diet can be. But a low wage or benefits doesn’t keep fruit and vegetables off the shopping list.”

She adds: “That’s not to blame the poor for being poor. But, unless a parent is a complete idiot or waster, there’s no possible excuse for kids not having basic clothing, fruit and vegetables.”

I think her point can be applied to the situation in loyalist areas; if they are so deprived, then what are the paramilitaries doing about to change things for the better? Are they creating problems or solutions? Are they looking after number one, or the community they purport to protect? Would loyalists not really be better off without loyalist paramilitaries? Why, if the Government sees the need to invest in ‘loyalist areas’, will it put control of funding in the hands of terrorists who have proved time and time again their inate ability to cream off as much as they can for themselves, even if their community suffers as a result? It’s not like they have a mandate, even to benefit from this form of sanitised bribery.

Poverty, deprivation, unemployment, poor facilities and so on are often listed as the causes of many of the problems in ‘loyalist areas’. But until loyalist ‘paramilitarism’ is recognised as a root cause of the problems, instead of a means to address them, and until loyalist, unionist and community leaders begin to show real leadership, those areas will continue to suffer. Whether they like it or not, for many loyalists the biggest threat to their own communities’ future is loyalist paramilitarism.

Right, I suppose I’ll have to sit back and get ready to read all the ‘What about the IRA?’ comments now…