- Associated Press - Sunday, August 29, 2010

LURGAN, Northern Ireland | Bursts of laughter. Young men playing pingpong. Battles of the bands.

In a Northern Ireland determined to put conflict behind it, the Links teen center bridges the divide between Catholic and Protestant teens in this struggling town, giving them something to do, an alternative to streets that offer a toxic mix of drugs and violence. It’s working, but like the peace process itself, it is under strain amid looming budget cuts.

“We’re just keeping our heads above water,” said Martin Larkham, 52, a youth work manager.

Tough times are hitting promising initiatives like Links — and causing unease about the very fate of Northern Ireland’s peace deal. As the troubled territory slogs through the worst economic downturn in decades, dissident Irish nationalist militias are getting increasingly restless — carrying out a string of violent acts including a recent bombing that injured three children.

Deep-rooted poverty and continued religious segregation of Irish nationalists and British loyalists are combining with steep budget cuts in London that lead many to fear that the hard work building bridges between Catholics and Protestants could suffer.

“[The dissidents] have gotten better,” Queen’s University political science professor Paul Bew said about those launching attacks. “There could be bad events just around the corner.”

Protestants and Catholics agreed to a power-sharing government a dozen years ago, when the major Catholic and Protestant parties forged an unlikely coalition to end violence that claimed 3,600 lives over three decades.

But those opposed to the deal have increased operations since 2007. In March 2009, Irish Republican Army (IRA) dissidents shot to death two off-duty British soldiers collecting pizzas and a policeman sitting in his car.

Poverty, unemployment and continued religious segregation are fueling a recruiting drive by groups clinging to the dream of getting the British out of Northern Ireland. The dissidents are recruiting, openly it is said, among poor youths who feel the IRA sold out for a chance in power.

Even as the violence has increased, the financial support for the peace accord is being threatened by Britain’s economic squeeze. Funding from the British government already has been cut by about $606 million for this financial year, and Northern Ireland must find additional savings of $197 million.

Though authorities are reluctant to discuss the threat of increased attacks, funds earmarked to fight al Qaeda terror plots are being diverted to operations meant to quash attacks by dissidents.

During the summer, always a time of unease because marches by Protestant societies celebrating old battles stir up sectarian passions, tensions grew in places such as Lurgan, located in an area once known as the “Murder Triangle” because of the violence that marked the region.

The town southwest of Belfast — built largely on linen making — boasts a broad main street, crossed by lanes dotted with old workers’ houses and cottages. One of them, Castle Lane, is the dividing line: Roman Catholics to one side, Protestants to the other.

Community workers intentionally placed a youth center right on the line, a spot acceptable to both camps. Featuring a computer room with glistening white Apple desktops and a common room with pingpong and pool tables, the center offers an oasis from the drugs, alcohol and boredom that lure young people into trouble.

Rioting broke out in one of Lurgan’s Roman Catholic public housing developments last month. Youths threw Molotov cocktails at a passenger train, but it failed to catch fire. Earlier this month, two 12-year-olds and 2-year-old were hit by flying debris in a bomb apparently timed to go off as emergency crews responded to an earlier alarm.

Lurgan’s youths — many of whom were raised on tales of bravado during the Troubles — are ripe pickings for recruiters promising excitement and a larger cause. In a town that offers little more than convenience stores and shops catering to older people, teens say there is not much of interest to them.

“There’s nothing to do,” said 16-year-old Danielle Fox, who dreams of studying drama. Without the center to channel her abundant energy, Danielle said, she might “be rioting” herself.

The unemployment rate among people ages 18 to 24 is nearly 16 percent in Northern Ireland. Students seeking places in higher education and training will find fewer places amid shrinking budgets. Those seeking jobs face competition from older and more qualified workers.

What concerns observers the most about the attacks is the timing: Northern Ireland’s manufacturing base has shrunk, its prospects for growth dampened. Many of those out of work have given up hope. Nearly half of the unemployed — 43 percent — have been unemployed for more than a year. At a time when an influx of cash could defuse sectarian overtures, there’s no money to be had.

People can’t hide their worries. One rainy day last week, Jennifer Maye, 43, who works in customer service, paused in front of a fruit market in the Catholic side of town to express the fears of many — that more violence could be at hand. But she and many others insist that the troublemakers are few.

“I think the majority of people don’t want to go back to that,” Ms. Maye said. “We thought those days were gone.”

The dissidents rarely have been successful in killing their targets or causing widespread destruction with car bombs. But their attacks have been gaining in number and complexity, suggesting the bomb operations are gaining in sophistication. Semtex, most likely from a store garnered by the IRA decades ago, apparently was used in a recent attack.

Sinn Fein, the Catholic-backed party that supported the IRA’s unsuccessful bid to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom, says it’s been trying to talk with dissident groups but has been spurned.

Dissidents say there is no compromise.

“It’s inevitable,” said Richard Walsh, 28, a hard-liner who once spoke for an IRA splinter group. “It will continue to happen until the British leave.”

But Mr. Bew and other analysts are convinced that voters have persuaded politicians to support the peace process. He said the accord, and the government, is stable for now.

Teenagers and counselors at the Links youth center also can’t imagine going back to the way things were, and they’ve tried to etch their dream in a mural on the wall of the front hallway.

It shows the Protestant side of Lurgan, and the Catholic side. In between, they’ve plotted out a sunburst and pasted their pictures in its glow.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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