Communities Fighting for Rights in Northern Ireland: You’re Not “On Your Own”

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

When Gerard McCarten, a butcher from North Belfast, steeled up his courage to testify before the local health authority about the suicide of his son Danny two years ago, the officials he was dealing with got up and opened the windows in the room onto a noisy street as soon as he began to speak. When Gerard was done, the official got up again to close the windows. As for provisions for preventive work around youth suicide in Belfast, Gerard was told: “you’re on your own.”

That breathtaking lack of respect for a grieving father bothered Gerard deeply. But it did not deter him from working tirelessly to make certain that other young people did not end up like Danny.

The suicides of young men, and the self-harming of young women, have mounted in Northern Ireland at an alarming rate, among the highest in Europe. While no one really has all the answers, it seems evident that a combination of widespread joblessness and the deep scars of decades of paramilitary violence have taken a toll on the young in the six counties of Northern Ireland. A tentative peace is taking hold in this historically conflict-torn region – where Atlantic has maintained an office since 1995 and spends approximately $30 million a year on programmes for disadvantaged youth, ageing, and reconciliation and human rights – but the “troubles” continue in the psyches and souls of many young people.

Securing the peace and building a vibrant economy that works for all – two goals to which Atlantic is committed – will not happen overnight. But in the meantime the epidemic of youth suicide and self-harm has a number of preventable elements that can be addressed now.

I learned about this on an impressive visit in Northern Ireland last week to the North Belfast office of the Project on Participation and Practice of Rights (PPR), founded and chaired by the dynamic Inez McCormack, the former President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. PPR is an alliance of local and national organizations, including the Combat Poverty Agency, the Committee on the Administration of Justice, Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Dublin Inner City Partnership, ICON and Ashton Centre and the Star Neighbourhood Centre.

PPR is distinctive in several respects. First, it’s a north-south institution, working in Dublin as well as Belfast – still a rare thing given the history of division. Even more importantly, it is one of the rare organizations I have encountered in 30 years of human rights work that operates on the ground to make economic and social rights enforceable – to have them “owned and sustained by the people themselves,” in the words of McCormack, and not just by lawyers and judges.

Two issues they are working on in Belfast, which we were fortunate to be educated about by community residents and PPR rights workers during our visit last Tuesday, are conditions in the SevenTowers public housing project and youth suicides and self-harm.

We first heard from Michelle McFarland, a mother of two who has lived in the Towers for eight years, and who began working with PPR in January. Her primary concern was, and remains, living conditions: sewage problems; chronic pigeon waste issues; conditions that make the towers unsafe for families with children. In June the residents held an Evidence Hearing on the Right to Housing before a panel of international experts from Brazil, Canada and Kenya. This both validated their research and enabled them to set human rights indicators and benchmarks. Since then PPR has secured a commitment from the Minister for Social Development to engage in a process designed by the residents to progressively realise their rights over a defined period. The residents were proud to be nominated for an Aisling Award for Outstanding Community Endeavour, particularly in light of the short time they have been in existence.

After Michelle, we heard from Mr. McCarten, who with his wife Carol started Public Initiative for the Prevention of Suicide and Self-harm (PIPS), to support families bereaved through suicide, after their son took his life. Gerard spoke with quiet dignity as Carol, who took time on her birthday to meet with us, looked on in evident pain. On the day of his death, Danny asked for a bed in a mental health facility for young people, but was turned down. There are only eight, we learned, in the whole of Northern Ireland, so young people with serious mental health needs either go wanting or into adult facilities which are inappropriate and even dangerous for them.

As Stephanie Green, a PPR rights worker, told a conference on Making and Measuring Change: A Human Rights-Based Approach to Health, “when Danny turned 18 he actually lost his social worker on Christmas Eve – due to when his birthday fell. That social worker was somebody Danny trusted and believed in and it wasn’t a lot of time after that that Danny actually took his own life.”

Danny’s death was the subject of a review instigated by Shaun Woodward, the Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, involving three health trusts, after the McCartens went to meet with him. The review detailed a series of failings by mental health services in Northern Ireland and made a number of recommendations. Their tenacious advocacy had an impact, for when we met last week with Woodward – now the U.K. Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – he spent much of the time talking about the youth suicide problem. If they continue at their current pace, he told us, in 10 years suicide will have claimed more lives than in all the years of the troubles. We also heard about it from the First Minister, Ian Paisley, and the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, when we met with them at Stormont, the Parliament building of the devolved Northern Ireland government. The McCartens and the other families they are working with in PIPS have had an enormous impact, but they know that awareness is just the first step and that they must keep up the pressure.

One simple issue PIPS is working on – which would cost no money – is for those released from mental hospitals to be given an appointment card, a lifeline, with the date of their next appointment, rather than waiting for the mail to come each day, filled with anxiety.

What PPR is doing to work with community leaders and link their concerns to international human rights standards is groundbreaking. As Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and U.N. Human Rights Commissioner (and Atlantic grantee, for her Realizing Rights project) told the founding conference of PPR: “I believe the work you are doing in this project is a major contribution to creating models and methods for…involvement. You are not just challenging what is wrong; you are creating an inclusive sense of rights and human dignity. It is very rare to see this work developed in community-based practices like you are doing in this project, and that is what I find so exciting. So if you find it is hard, remember it is because you are engaged in pioneering work which will command much interest and application elsewhere.”

Before we left Gerard mentioned to us that he’ll know exactly what to do if he is treated disrespectfully the next time he appears before the health authority. “I’ll get right up and shut the windows,” he said. Thanks to the solidarity and support he has found in PIPS and PPR, he’s not “on his own” anymore.

Gara LaMarche