The anger we must not ignore

 

Glen Branagh will be buried in north Belfast today, a day short of his 17th birthday. He died in horrific circumstances on Sunday night when the pipe bomb he was carrying exploded. Eyewitnesses said his hand and part of his arm was severed from his body and that he received head injuries, from which he later died in hospital.

After the high hopes and emotions which have attended the restoration of political institutions in Northern Ireland, the story of Glen Branagh, who died defending Protestant Ulster, is a terrible reminder of the realities that underlie the whole peace process..

The circumstances of his death are already the stuff of bitterly-contested myths. The police who were on duty in north Belfast on Sunday night say a masked man came running out of the Protestant crowd "carrying a fizzing object in his hand and was moving to throw it at our lines when it exploded, killing him".

Loyalist leaders in the area claim the bomb was thrown by republicans from the Catholic side and that Branagh was trying to get rid of it. Eddie McClean, a Protestant community worker in the area, said: "He died a hero's death, trying to save other people." Gerry Kelly of Sinn FΘin hotly denies this version of events and has said he is certain the bomb was not thrown by nationalists.

At a small shrine marking the place where the teenager died there are UDA flags, a Rangers' supporter's scarf, red poppies and a wreath from the Ulster Young Militants, the youth wing of the UDA of which Branagh was a member.

The riots on Sunday night, the worst sectarian clashes which Belfast has seen during the current phase of the peace process, were sparked off - God help us all - by a Remembrance Day service in North Queen Street. Loyalists say nationalists living in the area attempted to disrupt the ceremony. Nationalists reply that they have been under siege all summer and were terrified when they saw loyalist youths break away from the main Protestant group.

By nightfall the scene was set for a confrontation which cost one Catholic man the sight of an eye, led to a 12-year-old Protestant boy having to have 28 stitches in his neck, and resulted in 24 policemen and two British soldiers being injured.

Glen Branagh's death has been described as "the senseless waste of a young life" by David Trimble and as "an appalling waste which demonstrates that sectarian violence brings nothing but pain to communities that have suffered too much already" by the NIO minister, Jane Kennedy.

Alban Maginnis of the SDLP has called for legislation covering sectarian "hate crime" to deal with the kind of events we have been seeing in north Belfast. All of these reactions are understandable. What they do not begin to address is the key question - why was a 16-year-old Protestant living in north Belfast so consumed with anger that he was prepared to risk his life in order to hurl a bomb at his neighbours, who happened to be Catholic, or on the police who were, as he saw it, preventing him from doing this?

We know, or think we know, some of the answers. This area has long been an ugly cockpit of sectarian tensions, where one community or the other constantly feels under threat. As Billy Hutchinson remarked, we know the hatred exists, the question is how to change the situation. Some years ago I interviewed the actor, Kenneth Branagh, about his childhood in north Belfast. His family lived in Mountcollyer Street, just beside Mountcollyer Avenue where Glen Branagh's parents now reside. (No, I have not been able to establish whether their families are related.) The actor who, to his credit, has never forgotten his Belfast roots, was extremely warm about his early years in a mixed street where children ran in and out of each other's houses without a bother on them.

Then came August 1969. Within a matter of days, trucks and lorries arrived in Mountcollyer Street. Overnight, or so it seemed to him as a child, the Catholic families disappeared. Soon afterwards his father moved his young family to England.

Glen Branagh was not so fortunate. It is not enough to say about his death that it was senseless or that he was being manipulated by evil men. I am old enough to remember when these kind of comments were made about Catholic teenagers who were involved in the IRA. Many of these former young people are now members of the Assembly and have played a valuable part in the search for peace.

A way has to be found to bring the community which Glen Branagh was attempting to defend into the process, to deal with their fears and grievances through political dialogue. Last weekend, at the SDLP conference, Mark Durkan told his audience that he had been invited to speak to the North Down branch of the UUP. That is a move, from both sides, which is both brave and genuinely welcome. But, as we all know, there are not likely to be many teenagers, Catholic or Protestant, wanting to throw bombs at their neighbours in North Down.

Today, Glen Branagh will probably be given a martyr's funeral, just as the IRA man, Thomas Begley, was after he died placing a bomb in a fish- and-chip shop on the Shankill Road.

The challenge which faces the political class in Northern Ireland now - and by that I mean church leaders, the business community, the trades unions, community groups as well as politicians - is to create a society where no teenager places his or her hopes for the future in making or carrying a bomb.

mholland@irish-times.ie