Conflict's children bear silent witness

17th April 1998 at 01:00
Children in Northern Ireland keep quiet about bullying or abuse for fear of sectarian reprisals, the charity ChildLine said this week.

ChildLine unveiled its findings of the effects of the Troubles on the Province's children in the wake of the Stormont peace settlement which raised hopes around the world that the 30-year conflict has at last ended.

The charity's report revealed that one in five children have witnessed a bomb blast and up to 20 per cent have lost friends or relatives as a result of the conflict. Almost a quarter of children suffering bullying or abuse are too scared to tell anyone.

Anne Mason, who wrote the report, said: "The Troubles have been going on so long that they became a backdrop to children's lives, but nevertheless leave their mark. The effect of the political tensions on children is not a straightforward need to talk, but rather to produce a silence. In Northern Ireland's closed communities there are very few options for seeking help."

Last year around 7,000 children called a special Northern Ireland telephone helpline set up by the charity. Of the 2,000 calling about sexual or physical abuse, only 5 per cent had told a teacher or someone in authority, compared to more than 10 per cent from the rest of the UK. ChildLine say this is underlined by the fact that since 1994, they have made 1,800 formal referrals to other agencies such as police, ambulance or social services - just 19 were made on behalf of callers from the Province.

William Kidd, director of the helpline, said: "Adult fears and distrust have inevitably filtered down to Northern Ireland's children. The dilemma for us is that in the midst of all the very complicated negotiations going on at present, children's voices aren't being heard. Yet they are the future of the Province and the future of peace is up to them."

Mary Macleod, ChildLine's director of policy and research, said: "All callers to ChildLine who talk about abuse fear the consequences of telling - if things are bad, they may get worse. But in Northern Ireland this manifests itself in resignation, a sense of helplessness in the face of violence, a desire to protect family members from problems and, ultimately, a fear of sources of help."

The charity now plans to open a cross-community counselling centre in the Province.

'Helplessness in the face of violence'

Linda said she had been attacked by a private taxi driver but was afraid to tell her family or go to the police in case of reprisals from the paramilitary organisation she believed controlled the taxi firm.

* Gemma, a Protestant, went to a mixed comprehensive where she was bullied by the Catholic girls. "They say I'm a member of the UVF and the IRA will kneecap me."

* Liam, a Catholic, was dating Kelly, a Protestant. They were both 14. Liam had been threatened by a paramilitary youth wing, which told him to be at a certain place at a certain time to "get a kicking" - or they would beat up Kelly instead.

Liam told ChildLine that he was too scared to tell his parents because they didn't approve of him going out with a Protestant anyway. He felt that all the options were "bad" and that he had no choice but to turn up alone. He then rang off and did not call back.

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