Rival gangs clashing in Belfast 'neutral zone'

Rival gangs are arranging sectarian clashes in Belfast city centre's so-called "neutral zone", university researchers revealed today.

Rival gangs are arranging sectarian clashes in Belfast city centre's so-called "neutral zone", university researchers revealed today.

Their study has discovered Catholic and Protestant teenagers feel it is safer to stage fights away from either neighbourhood.

The Queen's University Belfast study, not due for completion until next May, has found evidence that some youths never socialise outside their own enclave.

Dangers only arise when they cross the religious divide to go on dates.

Dr Rosellen Roche, head of the project exploring the impact of sectarianism in the North, told of her surprise at the findings so far.

She said: "Some of the younger people have arranged skirmishes between the religious groups in the city centre.

"They felt it was safer than trying to have some kind of scenario play out in one of their areas.

"They are having it there because the playing field is a little bit more fair. They can only come with their particular gang."

The School of History and Anthropology project, Facts, Fears and Feelings, has been backed by a £90,000 (€132,627) EU grant.

Around 100 people aged between 16 and 35 in Belfast and Derry will be questioned for the exploration of everyday issues in their past, present and future lives that do or will prohibit communication and contact between communities.

But while Dr Roche has found some sectarian violence between young people happens away from the traditional flashpoint areas, a generational split is also emerging.

Older participants appear to be more comfortable going out in the city centre, although they felt it could be dangerous at night.

"The younger generation have notions of what sectarianism is, and many school leavers travel for the likes of NVQ training within their own areas because they feel safer doing so," Dr Roche said.

"All their socialising happens within the same areas as well.

"They don't have to exit their communities as much as one would think. That's what's surprising me.

"They socialise within their own areas and date within their own areas. When they have cross-community relationships it has caused some problems and that's sad.

"It shows Northern Ireland still has a problem if a 17-year-old is still prohibited from intermingling with the opposite community."

Dr Roche stressed, however, that the study - which is only a quarter completed - is not about violence.

"Issues, such as travelling to and from work, dating, everyday socialising, shopping and other aspects of life are discussed, revealing everyday barriers to meeting and knowing the other community," she said.

"That is more what the project is focused on.

"The participants are coming from areas such as Ardoyne, Whiterock, the Shankill, Falls, Ballymacarret, Central Creggan, Galliagh, The Fountain, Caw, Clooney, Top of the Hill and Irish Street.

"Most areas are the hardest hit by the troubles, the hardest to access, and those with some of the highest indicators of deprivation.

"I hope the project makes clear some of the assumptions made by government surrounding neutral areas and the realities that are faced by young people when venturing to school, work or social venues.

"Northern Ireland's government now must make clear that sectarian prejudice on any level will not be tolerated, and the support of this project is hopefully one small step towards this goal."

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