The two young men on the north Belfast street corner approved of the bomb which killed young Catholic police recruit Ronan Kerr last Sunday.
“Aye, that’s good stuff, aye,” said one. “I just hate cops – they’re scumbags.” His mate shrugged and said of the murder: “I wouldn’t lose no sleep.”
Their callousness may shock some, but many in Belfast will hardly be surprised by the lack of value they placed on human life. For this is Ardoyne, the Catholic ghetto which is one of Northern Ireland’s toughest areas.
It is tough in two particular ways. In the troubles it was one of the most violent places of all: an advice centre carries on its wall the names of more than 100 civilians and republicans who were killed there. Many soldiers also died on its streets.
Today it remains one of the city’s most deprived areas in terms of jobs, housing, education and health: the troubles may have largely gone but poor conditions remain.
During the troubles a clear link was evident between poverty and paramilitarism, with working-class areas the scene of much of the violence. A vicious circle developed: areas of traditional high unemployment experienced much conflict, which in turn meant that more jobs were lost and deprivation deepened.
As the more violent areas acquired increasing notoriety few new concerns could be persuaded, despite sizeable government grants, to locate there so unemployment got worse and worse.
This was classically the case in north Belfast, where jobs drained away from Ardoyne and the adjoining Protestant Shankill district. The two districts remain separated by some of the city’s highest peace walls which define two areas of different religion but similar deprivation.
Trouble flares in Ardoyne every loyalist marching season, when locals take exception to Orange parades passing beside their district, and the police have to move in. Last year dissidents arrived from elsewhere to fan the flames.
Such continuing friction helps explain why the two men, aged 20 and 21, exhibited such a lack of humanity. Why did they hate the police? “The cops have lifted me. You can’t even walk down the street without them stopping you,” said one of them.
So do they support republican dissidents? “No – definitely not. We’d support them when they kill a cop, like, but not when they shoot any of our mates,” said one, referring to so-called “punishment” attacks.
Do the two have any educational qualifications? “No.” Do they work? “No.” One of them explained: “I had a job but I got paid off – see, Catholics always get picked second choice.”
Their views, although not unique in Ardoyne, are still the exception: most others there feared a return to any violence and disapproved of the weekend murder. Many hoped for peace. This contradicts the assumption that, because the area has received little peace dividend, many of its residents are disillusioned with the peace process.
“I thought it was terrible, really shocking,” said a 28-year-old shop worker. “No one deserves that, no matter who they are.” Her partner agreed: “The police are not popular round these parts but it should be live and let live,” he said.
A 14-year-old boy said: “The police do treat us bad, they pull you over and search you for nothing. But they don’t deserve that, it’s not good.”
Of the dead policeman, a 28-year-old woman said: “God rest his wee soul, God rest him. He was young, he was a good-looking fella. God love him and his family.” A woman aged 80 said: “I went through all the troubles. It’s time we had peace.”
A 40-year-old unemployed painter declared: “People don’t want any more of this. The war’s over.” A shopkeeper summed up others’ hopes: “It’s a few dickheads that’s involved in it. “The widespread feeling is that nobody wants it, it’s futile, senseless. But it’s slowly but surely changing – it’ll take a good wee while but things are going in the right direction.”