Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Northern Ireland - a few days of sadness

Belfast Riot 20th June 2011
While in town today, I treated myself to lunch. Jacket potato, chicken curry and a side salad. Very filling, very nice and just £3. The news came on the television, and there was a report of last night's riot in East Belfast. I thought, 'Oh no, not again'. The pictures on screen (see above) could have come from any time over the last 40 years.

On returning home, I checked out the various news outlets to see what was being said, and a familiar story unfolded. The riot happened in the Lower Newtownards Road area of East Belfast, with the main target being the Short Strand district. The BBC reported that "a large group of masked loyalists rioted overnight in the Lower Newtownards Road attacking police vehicles with petrol bombs as well as homes in east Belfast's Short Strand area". Up to 500 people were involved in the rioting, and it seems as if shooting was heard from both sides. For those unfamiliar with the geography of this area, the Short Strand is a mainly Nationalist (Catholic) area with a population of about 3,000. It is surrounded by a generally Unionist (Protestant) population of about 80,000. The inter-face between the two communities has always been tense.

One of the Councillors based in the Short Strand is Niall O Donnghaile (Sinn Fein), who is also this years Lord Mayor of Belfast (incidentally the youngest Belfast Mayor ever at 25). Sinn Fein believe that the rioting was orchestrated by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and this was also the view of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). The UVF is supposed to have declared a ceasefire. Mr O Donnghaile says, "There is no doubt that this was unprovoked and was a carefully orchestrated and planned attack on this area". The Ulster Unionist, Michael Copeland, while not denying UVF involvement said that he believed the violence followed attacks on Protestant-owned homes in the Lower Newtownards Road. So it was retaliation.

There you have the classic Ulster position. It was "them" who started it, not "us". As ever, the BBC Ireland Correspondent, Mark Simpson summed it up beautifully. "The riot in east Belfast was another reminder that Northern Ireland has a peace process but it does not have peace". The process is moving forward, in spite of the efforts of those from both sides to de-rail it, and the process must continue, even if, god forbid, a few generations must pass before true peace is accomplished.

Lord Mayor Niall O Donnghaile
While last night's riot in East Belfast is disturbing, it is unfortunately something that does occur from time to time. Without any apology, I say that of far more sorrow to me was the report published a few days ago in Northern Ireland on the suicide rate in 2010.

A total of 313 deaths were recorded as suicides, which is the highest number ever recorded in Northern Ireland for a single year. I came across this figure while reading a website article by the Mayor of Belfast. He said, "Last year 313 people took their own life which is a record for the North. I am extremely concerned that many of those who died were young people who came from social disadvantaged areas. This year has also seen the highest number of maternal suicides with five women taking their own lives, which is an extremely worrying development, and shows that more needs to be done to support new mothers. Areas of North and West Belfast have nearly twice the death rate through suicide as the rest of the North, and young males are particularly at risk. ... We need to look at ways of combating this in a way that encompasses all agencies working together, rather than the piecemeal approach currently taken".

Of the 313 deaths, 240 were males and 73 were females, with the most common age group being between 25 and 34, though 1 in 8 deaths were in the over 60's age group. The report was presented by The Institute of Public Health, and its Associate Director, Owen Metcalfe said, "Men's health issues in times of economic recession are made more difficult by their tendency to take fewer health preventative measures, and be less likely to seek support. The combination of perceived inadequate service responses and the reluctance of many men to communicate their problems mean that a large proportion of more critical effects are undoubtedly hidden". The report linked unemployment and the current economic climate to the rise in mental health problems in men in Northern Ireland. High stress levels, over-use of alcohol and drugs, relationship problems and isolation were among the main causes.

To cover the period 2006 - 2011, The Northern Ireland Suicide Prevention Strategy and Action Plan was produced, called "Protect Life - a shared vision". While being a fine document, it is clearly not working, and perhaps the Mayor is right when he mentions the "piecemeal approach currently taken". Northern Ireland has a population of around 1.7 million, and while suicide rates as a percentage of the population (0.018%) are on a par with the Republic of Ireland and Scotland, they are way too high. Looking at the figures for the last few years tells us that we are not getting to grips with the problem. With suicide figures in brackets, we can note the following: 2005 (231); 2006 (291); 2007 (242); 2008 (282); 2009 (260); 2010 (313).

I find it interesting to compare these figures with those who took their lives during 'the troubles'. In April 1991, The Ulster Medical Journal (Volume 60, number 1), published an article where researchers examined methods of suicide between 1964 and 1988. During that 24 year period, 2168 people committed suicide, which is an average of 90 per year. However, in the early to middle 1970's, at the height of the troubles, the rate was just 50 per year. So, since the end of years of escalating violence, the suicide rate has increased dramatically, and largely in the same areas that felt the full brunt of violence.

Thankfully, attitudes to suicide have changed over the centuries. LaRita Archibold, in an excellent summary of attitudes, called "Religious Reflections on Suicide" says, "Legal and social attitudes about suicide throughout history evolved from canonical law. During the Middle Ages, the suicide was deemed as low as the lowest criminal, and was discouraged by exhibition and desecration of the body, defamation of the memory and confiscation of the estate by the government, leaving the surviving family ostracized and destitute. Attempters (of suicide) were punished by flogging, imprisonment and were stripped of all social and financial assets. Desecration of the corpse and forfeiture of estate were not legally abolished in England until 1823. In 1961, England repealed its law making attempted suicide a crime". So, only 50 years ago it would have been a crime to attempt suicide.

Unfortunately, there is however still a stigma associated with suicide which presents a large barrier to giving help. There is an excellent website called "Stamp out Suicide", and in trying to explain stigma it says, "Death is not something we discuss in everyday conversation. We do not feel comfortable in the knowledge that we will die someday and so such conversations are not commonplace. Indeed, given that we are driven by our survival instinct, is it little wonder we find it particularly difficult to comprehend when we hear that someone has taken their own life? Because people do not feel comfortable talking about death, and because there is a stigma associated with suicide, people who are suicidal may withhold their feelings and not seek help. This presents a major problem".

Arguably, there is more isolation than there has ever been, and the reasons for suicide are many and varied. However, there is one thing that all people either attempting, or committing suicide have in common; they can see no way forward except to take their life. They are feeling down, distressed and depressed, and what they need is empathy, help and support. Men, notoriously see it as a weakness to share their feelings, and so hide what they are going through from those around them. In a distressed state, we cannot see a way forward on our own, but there can be a way, but it might need others to show us that way. There are no easy answers, and I wouldn't pretend to have any, but it's a truism to say "that once a suicide is completed, there is no cure". We all can play a part by watching out for family, friends and neighbours; get over the stigma and be available to provide help.

So, in East Belfast, rioters were engaged in summer rituals of hating your neighbour, while individuals in the same city are struggling with how to get through today.

"Although we live in an ever changing world, showing compassion must never go out of fashion".

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