Let’s call him Jacko. He told me he remembered when he was four being sent to the shops by his drunken mother and seeing a pile of old wood including a piece with a large nail sticking through it – he jumped on it “… to see what it would feel like”.

He recounted a grim childhood – the oldest of four children, to a variety of fathers, who often bore the brunt of violent outbursts and beatings.

“I remember being beaten with a bat when I was four or five. We got beaten all the time.

“She (his mother) kept us off school a lot – just so we could go to the shop for her, or because she was sick from the drink. She’s an alcoholic. She might be sober once or twice in a week, but that’s because she’s too sick to drink.”

He said social services sometimes intervened, removing the children from the chaos – “… but after a day or two we were sent back to her”.

He was violent to his younger siblings. “I remember biting my younger brother really hard 11 times – he was covered in bites.” Jacko was five, his brother three.

He said that as he got older he realised he needed to protect his younger siblings. However, his brothers have been in and out of prison most of their lives, as has he.

He remembered being “really drunk” for the first time when he was nine years old. The alcohol burnt his oesophagus, he took so much of it. This was his life from a very early age: cocktails of alcohol and drugs.

There were often wild drunken binges going on around him as a young child and all through his adolescence. His father was largely absent after he turned two – coming back into their lives from time to time, maybe at Christmas. It was only as an adolescent and young adult that he got to see more of his dad. “He was more like a mate,” said Jacko. They binged together.

“I was kicked out of primary school at the age of 10 and then secondary school by third year when I was 13 or 14,” he recalled. “We moved around a lot, and I would get picked on at the new schools by gangs of pupils. I had to fight – to show I was tough.”

He recounted how he turned this into being the centre of attention – being ‘the lad’.

He also said that he liked school: “I was good at it. I really liked English – I like to read and write, I am smart.”

He is, but he is also understandably tortured by his childhood experiences. Drugs and alcohol help numb the pain, but offer only a temporary relief.

By the age of 15, he had his first criminal conviction and has developed a catalogue of them since. He has been in and out of juvenile detention centres and prisons, and he is currently on remand awaiting sentence for a violent crime and other charges. He has spent more time in prison than out of it over the past 16 years. He also received his first threats from paramilitaries at around the same age (15), and has been under constant threat from them ever since.

Jacko spent much of his youth living away from home, or moving from place to place in between periods of custody.

The paramilitaries caught up with him at the end of last year.

He was 30 and had lived with their constant threats for half his life. He was given an appointment. He knew what was going to happen and even prepared by getting tea towels to bring with him to plug his wounds and soak up some of the blood. He laughed: “… in the end I forgot them!”

They told him that two other boys were being “dealt with” at the same time, but he shouldn’t tell them anything. He warned them and they didn’t show.

He suggested he did not know why he was shot since he was working to “go clean” at the time. “They said, ‘You know why you’re being shot?’ And I didn’t say anything in case I told them something they didn’t know.”

Because he had warned the others, the paramilitary assailants dealt him a more severe punishment – shooting him in the knees and the ankles.

He was told he would get flesh wounds, but they shot him through the kneecaps and ankle bones and left him with permanent injuries, which were painful and life-changing. He still (several months later) walks with the aid of a crutch. He often can’t sleep due to the pain, and in prison he can’t dull his senses like he would have on the outside.

The attack was doubly traumatising. It came after his father had died of cancer, his mother received a cancer diagnosis and a friend had hanged himself. Jacko had found him.

Two other men in his life, a father and then his son, also took their lives. “I’d really been trying to get my act together, but all this (including the attack) sent me over the edge”, he said.

He has a strong streak of mischief. “I have two death threats on me now,” he said, and when I pushed for a reason, he told me he stole the cars of two leading members of paramilitary organisations who are out for revenge. Then the most solemn moment. “I know I’ll end up dead – they will kill me,” he said with an air of resignation, but not self-pity.

There isn’t much hope here – until you talk to him about his eight-year-old daughter. She doesn’t come to visit (nor does his family), as her mother got fed up bringing her long after her relationship with Jacko had ended. But he thinks of her constantly, he said, and he wants her to have a life he was denied.

He said he loved to read and would like to write a book. Myself and my colleague encouraged him to write down his experiences – many of which he can recall vividly – as a way of helping him to process what he has experienced and reduce the pain in his head.

He told the stories with an eloquence I wasn’t expecting, but they didn’t sound rehearsed – he had hid them so as not to appear weak.

It is hard to be optimistic about his future and he knows this, but there is a spark of hope.

My colleague is remarkable. Older, I suspect, than his mother, but she is one of the only people who visits him and his brother, and encourages them to rebuild their lives. She is a part-time worker in the local youth club, but I know her commitment is a vocation and goes well beyond the hours she is paid for.

I couldn’t have had this conversation were it not for the immense trust he places in her. I suspect he trusts her more than any other person in his life.

Those who shot Jacko know him. He knows them. I suspect they don’t know the full horror of his childhood, and they can’t know the horrors in his head. He knows they have done similar things to himself and that they are hypocrites, but he accepted his ‘punishment’ as inevitable.

Though they were vicious in the assault – fuelled by his disclosure to their other intended victims – I doubt they will have known the full trauma they were unleashing on him. They may not care.

What is clear to me is that their intervention made a very bad situation much worse – and filled him with despair.

He told me about other young men (and boys) in the area who were shot and then took their own lives. He is a thinker, so even the cocktails of drink and drugs will not numb his emotional pain, and the physical pain is a constant reminder of the assault.

As with the other stories I have heard recently, I was struck by the power of the local youth workers and their quiet and courageous commitment to these young men who everyone else has given up on. They know it is not enough – but they also know they are the only lifeline.

This is a legacy issue from the former conflict and it is also a class issue – these are the young people our society cares least about, and they know it.

The costs of turning Jacko’s life around are steep. He and those like him need a multitude of support over a long period of time. The costs of not tackling this problem are greater.

It will ensure the ongoing cancer of these organisations in our communities – with their toxic mixture of criminality and extreme ideology.

It will require a shift in policing tactics, language and risk-taking by the PSNI to build community confidence.

It will require a shift in thinking within communities – to see these as vulnerable and damaged young people rather than ‘criminal scum’, and to suspend their suspicion of the police to build community confidence in the systems of justice.

Most of all it will take leadership – something which seems in very short supply around this issue.

First published on Paul Smyth’s wiseabap.com blog

Belfast Telegraph

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