Has Ecstasy helped bridge the gulf between Catholics and Protestants?
Ever since I started work on E for Ecstasy in 1993, I heard rumours that the effect of young people taking Ecstasy at raves in Northern Ireland was to break down sectarian barriers. In the summer of 1994, just before the IRA ceasefire, I spent 3 days in Northern Ireland visiting a Catholic club one night and a Protestant club the next.
I interviewed teenage kids at a rave event in the Catholic club with a home video camera. As news spread as to what I was doing, lots of them were keen to tell me about the friendships they had made with members of the opposite sect who, they assured me, they would never have met otherwise. But interviewing people on E turned out to be harder than I had expected: they were clearly not in the mood for an intellectual discussion. One boy demonstrated his affection instead, picking up his smaller friend and whirling him around!
The scene was fairly new, and drew a very young crowd, nearly all of them under 20 and down to 14. Their behaviour was delightful, fresh and sweet; just like the good old days of raves in England four years previously. I soon came to realise that it was not only Ecstasy, but the whole rave scene that had opened up new ways of meeting: the music and dancing, the non-partisan venues and more young people with cars to reach them. In the pre-rave culture, discos were known to be either Catholic or Protestant according to their location, but rave clubs drew from a wider clientele including both factions.
In one club I was introduced to a dealer who explained how the paramilitaries controlled the supply of drugs by monopolising the wholesale market. The dealers were not paramilitaries themselves, but were allowed to operate providing they bought from para sources at inflated prices: £9.50 each (instead of about £8 each when buying 100 down to £3-£4 a thousand). So although the retail price of £15 was the same as in England, each punter contributed about £6 to the paras. Dealers would sell openly inside the club just after being frisked by security, watched over by a known member of the UVF.
Started by the Loyalists and copied by the IRA, each side controlled clubs in their own territory, eliminating competition by punishment beatings. Neither of the main paramilitary groups admitted to being involved which may have been technically true, as the dealing was controlled by subgroups. Somewhere along the supply line there must have been a connection, as identical drugs were sold in both Protestant and Catholic clubs.
Paradoxically, the innocent, peaceful, joyous atmosphere was partly due to paramilitary involvement, as all drugs sold were good quality and no one got ripped off. And the paramilitaries only allowed speed, E and acid, unlike England where coke, Ketamine and even crack is also sold in many clubs. Violence was unknown on the Northern Irish rave scene. But ravers taking drugs had no choice but to provide funds for killing people, a responsibility that some felt revolted by, but most accepted as part of life.
A reader studying political factions in Northern Ireland told me that the resulting breakdown in hard line sectarianism among the youth was a cause of concern to the paramilitaries (see above), but there seemed to be no one trying to stop kids making friends at raves. There was concern, though, that the paras were becoming more interested in the money for its own sake than for political ends. Two quite separate people seriously told me that the drugs money provided the paras with new motives that they were unlikely to concede through peace.
©Nicholas Saunders 1995