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Loyalist intimidation in east Belfast

JM Thorn

14th June 2002

Recent weeks have witnessed some of the worst sectarian violence seen in Belfast for over a decade. Much of the focus of this violence has been on the Short Strand area, the only nationalist area in east Belfast. It has included people being shot and wounded, houses being bombed and set on fire, people being denied access to basic amenities such as doctors’ surgeries, workers being forced out of their jobs, and students being threatened in their classrooms.  Even the dead haven’t been spared, with a funeral service coming under attack from stone throwers.  This has all combined to create a general state of siege and intimidation.

In the media this strife is portrayed as “communities in conflict”, and as being the inevitable result of Catholics and Protestants being unable to live together.  Responsibility for the ensuing “tit for tat” violence is placed equally on loyalists and republican paramilitaries.  This schema however just doesn’t fit the facts.  It is not the case that there has been a parity of violence.  The overwhelming number of attacks have been perpetrated by loyalists, part of an ongoing campaign of sectarian violence that has escalated steadily since the Belfast Agreement.

The recent violence in east Belfast started four weeks ago with a UVF pipe-bomb attack on houses in Short Strand.  To a large degree the response to this attack laid the basis for the later escalation.  In the immediate aftermath of the attack the Police Service of Northern Ireland arrived and proceeded to baton charge a nationalist crowd that had gathered, leaving one man seriously injured with a fractured skull.  This was followed up in the next few days with destructive house searches.

On a political level, every hue of unionist politician from Reg Empey of the UUP, to David Ervine of the PUP, through to Sammy Wilson of the DUP, claimed that nationalists were responsible for the violence and demanded that a barrier be erected in Madrid Street.  The response of the British government, in the form of the Security Minister Jane Kennedy, was to accede to these demands and erect a barrier.  Madrid Street, which was the only open link between the Short Strand and Protestant Templemore Avenue, was now blocked.  In effect, the British state had reinforced the segregation of the two communities by almost imprisoning Short Strand residents, the very objective of the UVF attack.  Given this success it is hardly surprising that loyalist intimidation should escalate.

Two weeks later, following a confrontation between nationalists and loyalists erecting UVF flags outside St Matthews chapel on the Newtownards Road, the Short Strand came under attack once again.  Over a hundred loyalists entered the area and attempted to burn down a number of houses.  During the ensuing rioting, shots were fired from the Short Strand and a number of Protestants were injured.  While clearly not all the violence is coming from one side, the general picture is one of loyalist attack and nationalist reaction.

Unionist politicians however seized upon this shooting incident to claim that the violence in east Belfast was the result of republican aggression.  After “crisis” talks in London with Tony Blair, David Trimble stated “what we have seen in east Belfast in recent weeks is simple, naked aggression."  The role of loyalists was only mentioned as a weak afterthought.  He demanded that “interface areas” be secured and that the British government take action against Sinn Fein.  For good measure Trimble also demanded that the Parades Commission be abolished.  So, at the same time as he was calling for greater restrictions on the movement of nationalists, he was demanding that Orangeman have the freedom to march where they please.

As Trimble was speaking in London, loyalists were attacking a funeral service at St Matthews on the Newtownards Road.  Although this shocking incident did receive wide coverage, it was merely one element of an escalating loyalist campaign in the area.  This included the picketing of post offices, pharmacies and doctors’ surgeries, the painting of sectarian graffiti warning "Short Strand taigs stay off our road - you have been warned”, and the pasting of fly-posters which warned that nationalists were “no longer welcome” at shops and workplaces in east Belfast.

Soon after these threats were issued came the attack on a further education college in Templemore Avenue.   On a Friday morning the college was invaded by masked loyalists demanding that students produce identification to show if they were Catholics or Protestants, and threatening that nationalists would be shot.  Terrified students and teachers had to lock themselves in classrooms to escape.  Despite its location in an interface area, this was the first time that the college had been targeted for attack.  According to one source:  "That building stayed open and unaffected right through the Troubles of the 70s. It has always had a mixed student body".

The fact that the college is mixed cuts across the assumption that what is going on in east Belfast is a result of community conflict.  It is not.  What is taking place is a campaign of sectarian intimidation by loyalists.   However, rather than expose this, nationalist politicians accept that the attacks on the Short Strand are a reflection of the sentiments of the entire Protestant population of east Belfast.  This view was captured by a cartoon in the Irish News which shows the three thousand catholic residents of the Short Strand as David pitted against the Goliath of sixty thousand Protestants in the rest of east Belfast.  That a few days later a large mural version of this cartoon was painted on a wall in the Short Strand shows the degree to which the idea of community conflict has permeated popular consciousness.  However, that does not make it true.  Most Protestants in east Belfast do not support the actions of loyalists.  Indeed, the loyalist threats are directed against Protestants as well as Catholics.  Protestant doctors, shop workers, students, and teachers are all under threat because of their daily contact with nationalists and are intimidated into appearing to support paramilitary sponsored actions.

Accepting the logic of community conflict legitimises loyalist violence.  This is what Sinn Fein is doing when it claims that the attacks on the Short Strand are a result of the “crisis of unionism” and its difficulties in coming to terms with the Good Friday Agreement.  The implication is that if the peace process is to continue, then the unionist ‘crisis’ has to be solved and the demands of loyalists will have to be accommodated, even if these demands are for the creation of walled ghettos.  This is what the Short Strand has been effectively turned into in the space of four weeks, with new walls and barriers being added regularly.  An area that was once relatively open has now been completely shut off.  What is developing across Belfast is almost an apartheid system in which Protestants and Catholics are strictly segregated in the areas they live and in the amenities they use.

It is undeniable that there has been an increase in sectarianism during the peace process.  Indeed, many of the areas that are now being consumed by sectarian violence were, until recently, mixed areas that had been relatively peaceful during the period of the “troubles”.  It is the sectarian dynamics of the peace process, and the institutionalising of sectarianism in the Good Friday Agreement that has created the conditions for this increasing community polarisation.  At every level Protestants and Catholics are pitted against each other.  This has given impetus to the loyalists’ campaign to which the republican response is one of a call for negotiations between themselves and the bigots.

We now have a loyalist commission composed of unionist politicians, churchmen and loyalist paramilitaries that excuse and minimise loyalist violence while blaming republicans.  It goes unremarked that so-called respectable politicians and clerics can sit with paramilitaries and hold up as progress a ‘no first strike policy’ which at best justifies sectarian attacks as long as they can be excused by reference to some real or imagined provocation.  This is but the latest example of the legitimisation of loyalist paramilitaries during the peace process.

Loyalist violence and intimidation has been justified, and their demands are acceded to, on the basis of the necessity to assuage the “fears” of the protestant community, in Sinn Fein-speak ‘the crisis of unionism.’  Despite some routine condemnation of the actions of loyalists, and platitudes about not giving into intimidation, sectarian violence has proved to be successful.  Their demands have been met.   The latest example of this is the publication of proposals to end the Holy Cross protests, which envisage the building of a wall across the entrance to road on which the school is sited.   Around the same time Holy Cross Girls school announced that applications for places had fallen by 50 per cent, raising doubts over its long-term future.  As the original demands of loyalists was for “fenians off the road” and the closure of Holy Cross School, the results of the blockade can only be viewed as a success for them.

The idea of community conflict also obscures the role of the British state in facilitating sectarian intimidation.  It was the Secretary of State John Reid who legitimised loyalist violence by talking about Northern Ireland as a “cold house for unionists” and it was he who maintained that the UDA was on ceasefire despite it being involved in a catalogue of attacks.  Only recently, on a visit to the Shankill area, he said that loyalist fears had to be addressed.  Part of this visit was spent at Fernhill House, the government funded loyalist “museum”.   Here, flanked by the museum’s “curator”, Tommy Kirkham, John Reid appealed for an end to paramilitary violence.  The fact that Kirkham is the political mouthpiece for the UDA in the Newtownabbey area, where it has carried out a string of attacks including the murders of Protestant teenager Gavin Brett and Catholic postman Daniel McColgan, demonstrates the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the British government.  That this shameless display by Reid provoked no criticism is a further sign as to how far politics has degenerated in the North. It also shows the degree to which the British state has been able to evade responsibility for what is going on.  In the schema of community conflict Britain is almost invisible.  As this is one of the key objectives of the British, it is not in its interests to do anything that would reduce sectarianism.  On the contrary, its continuation is absolutely necessary.

Although the current loyalist violence is being played up a crisis in the peace process, this is to a large degree a contrived crisis.  No unionist party, from the Ulster Unionists to the DUP, is calling for the end of the Good Friday Agreement.  What they have been doing is supporting and inciting loyalist violence in order to move the political agenda further to the right, and to mould the Good Friday Agreement more to their liking.  It has given them the prize of Stormont with all its patronage and privileges.  What they want is the Good Friday minus its minimal gestures towards equality for nationalists.  And as they agree that the threat to the Agreement comes from the “crisis within unionism” how can nationalists object to the measures needed to resolve that crisis?



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