West Belfast communities under siege from a new teen gang
A small group of youths is terrorising both locals and tourists in the Lower Falls area
Murals on the Falls Road near Albert Street in west Belfast. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker
A few months back one of the young men was shot four times in a suspected dissident republican “punishment” attack.
“Yeah, look what they done to me,” he says. Without hesitation or embarrassment, he pulls down his grey tracksuit bottoms, displays his bare backside and shows where one of the bullets entered. “One of them was only a centimetre from an artery in me arse,” he says.
He then pulls up the leg of his trousers and points to more bullet wounds. “They shot me four times; four bullets went in and four bullets went out.”
He is a lucky man, as he appears in decent shape with no sign of a limp. Was he afraid he might be killed, as has happened other victims of these attacks? “Of course I was afraid.”
One of his mates knowledgeably reckons he was shot with a .45 calibre revolver. Those responsible were “only wankers”, the friend says. “Up the DHLA,” he adds, a slogan he repeats intermittently throughout this conversation. The acronym becomes understandable later.
The victim of the shooting was accused of anti-social activity in the area. Was he involved in such behaviour? “No, it was a case of mistaken identity.”
Twitchy and agitated
His two friends seem twitchy and agitated. They find it hard to stand still. They want to know am I secretly recording them. I assure them I’m not.
They allow me scribble a few notes. Then they’ve had enough and they decide to quit the scene, heading back around the corner to Albert Street without any further chat. “Up the hoods,” says one of them, as he goes.
The DHLA, as it turns out, is the “Divis Hoods Liberation Army”. Local people say the “hoods” are a serious menace in the Lower Falls area, that they are involved in mugging tourists who come to view and photograph the murals on the “International Wall”; that they terrorise local people; that they engage in house break-ins, assaults, bag- and camera-snatching, drug-taking, intimidation and “death driving” – the old term “joyriding” is seldom used now.
On Thursday, there was yet another manifestation of the problem. This was when a very distressed young gay man from the area, Tony Devine, and his mother Paula went on BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan Show.
They spoke of the “living hell” of the past three years as Devine was physically, verbally and mentally assailed by some of the 14- to 15-year-old hoods.
That, they said, included having his windows broken, “fagit (sic) out” daubed on his door, and a constant stream of homophobic abuse hurled at him. His mother told Belfast Live she feared her son would be killed.
Local people say the overall anti-social behaviour is a “constant” and under-reported problem. It also hit the headlines recently after a picture was posted on social media and appeared in the Irish News of a young man on a bicycle and wearing a grey hoodie – hence the terms “hoods” – attempting to steal a camera belonging to a French tourist.
The Frenchman vigorously defended himself and his property while local people also came to his assistance. His assailant escaped empty-handed. There were an estimated 14 such muggings at the wall this year.
The incident prompted a rally on Albert Street attended by a few hundred people fed up with the regular bouts of feral, youth terrorism. It was organised by the Falls Residents’ Association.
Did it make a difference? “Things went even crazier after that,” says a local Lower Falls Road woman. “Some of the ‘hoods’ were at the rally taunting and jeering,” she adds.
“They are still stealing cars, robbing tourists, harassing people going to Mass in St Peter’s [nearby Catholic cathedral], targeting people with Free State number plates coming to look at the murals – nothing has changed.”
The woman says there are a hard core of about 15 people involved, most aged between 12 and 16, , although there are also some in their 20s, like the three men mentioned earlier.
“We have enough bad boys but now more bad boys from Twinbrook and Ballymurphy [in west Belfast] are coming down to join our bad boys. Things are already bad enough without more of them coming into the area,” she adds.
Not surprisingly, she doesn’t want to give her name. She says all the local hoods are well known, including the three I spoke to earlier.
She is critical of the PSNI for not doing more to tackle such crime. “The hoods are known as ‘£10 touts’ because an hour after they are lifted by police they are out again. The police use them to get information on other issues in the area.”
The PSNI west Belfast commander Kellie McMillan later says she “absolutely” refutes the allegation that people arrested for crimes in the area are released after providing information. Nonetheless, it is a perception.
She understands local frustrations but says police “are working alongside the local community, representatives, groups and partner agencies to address anti-social behaviour”.
Regardless of such assurances there are people who favour a more summary form of “justice” than the PSNI offers.
The middle-aged woman says that people are so hounded by the hoods that quite a number of them support the “punishment” attacks such as inflicted on the DHLA supporter. “They feel they are untouchable, that is why they are running amok.”
A man in his 60s joins the conversation. “Yes, generally local people would be for shooting them,” he says matter-of-factly. “People are afraid; it’s been going on for too long.”
But would most people not be shocked by anyone proposing such arbitrary punishment? “I tell you what,” he responds. “Let them swap their houses with us for a week and then see how they feel.”
The woman says Northern Ireland’s housing authority, the Housing Executive, “needs to come and put the families out of the area”. That includes the parents of the troublemakers, she adds – “yes, families and all”.
Her friend agrees: “Put them out and make sure they don’t come back.”
A black cab taxi driver who does the Troubles historic trips up and down the loyalist Shankill and nationalist Falls roads says “drivers are on high alert” when they bring tourists into the area, and that they also warn them to be careful with their belongings.
“Like anything there are opportunist criminals about. That is what is giving the area the headlines it has been getting,” he says.
Local Sinn Féin Assembly member Fra McCann, who is 64, has lived in the area all his life. Anti-social behaviour is a generational problem, he says, with the irony that some of those involved in the past are now complaining about the current crop of hoods.
McCann says that with the greater use of cannabis and cocaine and, recently, more heroin coming into the area, the problem is particularly bad now. There is also significant use of prescription drugs.
“You have quite a number of break-ins with anti-social elements zeroing in on people who would be quite ill to get their prescription drugs,” he explains. It’s all wearing people down: “You end up with an open prison in your own area because people fear for their lives and property.”
McCann too has heard the calls for those responsible to be shot in so-called punishment attacks.
“People old enough to remember know that doesn’t work,” he says. He mentions a local hood “shot four weeks ago who within three days was back up to his antics”.
“Shootings may satisfy some people in the community but it offers no solution.”
McCann almost laughs away the notion of more youth clubs in the area. He lists off all the local youth clubs, leisure centres, GAA, soccer and boxing clubs that operate in the Lower Falls. “It’s not a lack of facilities. Ninety-nine per cent are good kids. Another youth club is the last thing you need.”
It all seems incredible that such a small group could inflict that level of distress and disruption on a community. McCann and Gerry McConville of the Falls Community Council and Sinn Féin West Belfast MP Paul Maskey talk about the need for a multi-agency approach while acknowledging there have been such initiatives in the past that failed to deliver.
Maskey says the police are frustrated because even when they achieve successful prosecutions the anti-social elements “are back out on the streets in no time”. The fact is when some of the DHLA members are in prison the level of trouble diminishes, he says.
McConville says that the likes of the PSNI, the probation service, restorative and youth justice, Belfast City Council, the Housing Executive and other agencies need to get more seriously involved and to “stay involved”.
“Local people are absolutely fed up with the constant trouble,” he adds. “They have had enough. They want agencies to step up to the mark here.”