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The murder of Mickybo - Sectarian killing in Ballymena 

JM Thorn 

15 May 2006

The sectarian nature of northern society was demonstrated again in the most brutal fashion last week with the murder of a Catholic teenager in Ballymena.  15 year old Michael McIlveen and two friends were leaving an entertainment complex in the town when they were set upon by a gang of youths.  They chased Michael into an alleyway where they beat him with a baseball bat and stamped on his head.  Though he managed to get home Michael’s condition deteriorated and he was taken to hospital.  His family stayed by his bedside for forty eight hours until his life support machine was switched off. 

While such acts normally provoke a public reaction, the sense of outrage and shock has undoubtedly been heightened by the youthfulness of the victim and also by the general assumption that such heinous crimes have been consigned to the past.  The murder of Michael demonstrates that such assumptions are illusory.  While there are fewer people losing their lives through political violence, the bigotry that motivated sectarian murder is still in place.  Indeed, with the development of a peace process based on ‘equality of the two traditions’, people are encouraged to define themselves as members of a community in opposition to members of the “other” community and sectarianism has become even more entrenched. 

Northern society has become more polarised than ever, with a sectarian dynamic introduced to every issue.   This dynamic creates a poisonous political environment, but is not sufficient in itself to produce sectarian murderers.  The key element for that is the existence of organisations whose whole raison d’etre is to maintain sectarian divisions.  This is the role played by the Loyalists.  They are the motor behind sectarianism. Despite the revulsion their bigotry and violence engender, they remain in business because of the support of Unionist politicians and the protection and relative immunity afforded to them by the British state.

Ballymena and the surrounding area of north Antrim is a good example of this.  It has a large unionist majority, in which the DUP is the leading party.  The MP for the area is the DUP leader and chief sectarian rabblerouser Ian Paisley.  While the unionist politicians keep up a daily diatribe of sectarian bile and use their control of the local council to deny nationalists even the most minimal vestiges of power, the Loyalists enforce sectarianism through violence and intimidation.  In Ballymena and north Antrim there has been an ongoing campaign of sectarian intimidation.  This has included threats, assaults, attacks on homes, and murder.   High profile incidents in recent years have included the two-year picket of a Catholic church in Harryville, the expulsion of Catholic families from the village of Ahoghill and arson attacks on Catholic schools. The police constantly talked of a ‘tit for tat’ campaign, effectively excusing and providing cover for Loyalist intimidation.  Their most notable action during this period was to provide families under nightly attack with fire blankets, a clear signal that they were on their own and could expect little in the way of police intervention.

In 2003, a Loyalist was sent to jail for the attempted murder of a Catholic man in the town.  Michael Reid, who was visiting a house in the Harryville area, was beaten so badly that he had to pretend to be dead in order to escape.  He heard his attackers discussing how to dispose of his body by sawing it to pieces.  Despite the media attention given to these events much of the violence goes unreported.  In the wake of the son’s death Gina McIlveen revealed how her family had been the victims of earlier sectarian attacks.  Last Christmas, she and her pregnant daughter were assaulted by a well-known loyalist and his girlfriend in the town’s main shopping centre.  Despite the attack being captured on CCTV cameras, and the two assailants being arrested and questioned, the police advised Gina McIlveen that her life would be in danger if she proceeded with the case.  Only two months before his murder Michael was the victim of a sectarian attack in which his lip was ripped.  Given their earlier experience the family didn’t bother making a report to the police.  A fortnight ago, his 20-year-old friend Kirk McCaughern was stabbed in the back in broad daylight in a busy shopping centre after hearing someone say: "There's the Fenians coming."


The nature of sectarianism in the North is highlighted not just in the murder of Michael McIlveen but the official reaction to it.  Condemnation of the murder by Unionists was constructed in such a way as to actually justify the killing or divert attention away from the motivation behind it.  This approach was epitomised by Ian Paisley who warned that; “anyone thinking of using the tragedy as a political football in the peace process ought to be ashamed of themselves”.  After this attempt to deflect any criticism of the role he and his party have played in whipping up sectarian sentiment in Ballymena, he went on to imply that Michael’s murder was the fault of Nationalists.  He said: “There’s problems in Ballymena when people don’t keep their word.”  This was an allusion to an agreement between Protestant and Catholic community workers to remove a UDA mural and loyalist flags from the area around the Catholic Church in Harryville. 

The deal collapsed almost immediately when the loyalist flags were re-erected to coincide with an Apprentice Boys parade in the area.  The Loyalists claimed that they had no responsibility for these flags, and that in any case they were pulling out of the agreement because of the presence of tricolours in a nationalist area of the town.  By alluding to this Paisley was endorsing the loyalist position. 

Paisley also made an appeal for calm in the run up to the marching season.  Of course, the purpose of the “marching season” is not to create calm but to heighten sectarian sentiment.  More hypocritical condemnation came from the organisers of those marches, the Loyal Orders, who issued a statement calling for an end to “inter-community conflict”.  The most sickening response came from the local spokesperson for the UPRG, the political mouthpiece of the UDA, the very organisation that is orchestrating most of the sectarian attacks in the Ballymena/north Antrim area.  He said that his group wanted to “assure people we will continue to endeavour to do everything in our power to combat sectarianism and bring an end to it within the Borough of Ballymena."

As well as these obfuscations and justifications for murder from Unionists and Loyalists there were the usual hand wringing statements form the more “respectable” elements such as church leaders and state officials.  These condemn sectarianism in general without identifying Loyalists as the main culprits.  Archbishop Robin Eames, the Church of Ireland Primate, said that the Michael McIlveen was “the victim of sheer blind thuggery”.  The PSNI Chief Constable, Hugh Orde, spoke about young people getting caught up in sectarian violence, which was, he said, a “two-way thing”. The local police commander indicated that Protestants were now under threat from Catholic sectarian killers. Such statements are wholly dishonest as they create the impression that is an equality of sectarianism.  While there are certainly sectarian attitudes among both Protestants and Catholics the overwhelming number of attacks are carried out by Loyalists.  Theses spurious attempts at even-handedness completely distort what is going on.  Worst than that, they implicitly endorse the Loyalist position by suggesting they are responding to attacks from Nationalists. 

This accommodation of Loyalism has marked the peace process from the very beginning, from the rigging of elections to get Loyalist representatives into the Assembly, through recognition of phoney ceasefires, to showering them with cash.  The latest examples of this have been the appointment of member of the UVF aligned PUP to the Policing Board, and the announcement that loyalist areas are to receive £30m in funding for regeneration. This money is to be disbursed, not on the basis of need, but as a sectarian bribe. None of this pandering to Loyalism has brought about a change in their behaviour as they continue to be involved in a wide range of criminal and sectarian activity. 

The concessions have largely been unchallenged by the SDLP and Sinn Fein because they have accepted the logic of the peace process and a ‘two traditions’ ideology that automatically leads to the accommodation of Loyalism.  The only complaints from the Nationalist parties have been that they are not getting a big enough slice of the sectarian patronage that is being distributed by the British.  The complete bankruptcy of Sinn Fein was revealed when Gerry Adams welcomed a minute’s silence for Michael McIlveen at the start of the new session of Stormont as a step forward. He was forced to welcome the Unionist hypocrisy because Sinn Fein strategy involves him in nominating Ian Paisley, the single biggest source of sectarian hatred in the North, as first minister of a new Stormont executive  The thought that a government headed by Ian Paisley and the DUP could produce peace and an end to sectarianism is completely ludicrous. The new government would be Ballymena Borough Council writ large.

The Loyalist attacks on funeral cars as Michael McIlveen was buried are nothing new.  They bring to mind the murder of postman Danny McColgan in 2002.  After his death floral tributes were ripped to shreds and his grave was attacked and vandalised.  This behaviour indicates three elements of Loyalist sectarianism: its virulent, psychopathic hatred, the element of impunity that removes any limits to their behaviour, and finally the reality of that impunity, as the police and state forces gaze around blindly and offer legitimacy to Loyalist claims of provocation.

What should give us hope is the spontaneous reaction of the youth in Ballymena, both Protestant and Catholic, who came out in support of the McIlveen family.  This showed real courage, particularly as the threat of loyalist violence continues to loom large there.  It shows that there is a counter force, apart from official politics, to sectarianism.  Though it is weak and confused, often looking to people and politics that are part of the problem rather than the solution, it does have the potential to be built upon and gives us a brief glimpse of life outside the sectarian prison in the North of Ireland. 


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