Sectarian murder in Coleraine
27 May 2009
The murder of a Catholic man in Coleraine at the weekend exposes yet again the thoroughly sectarian nature of the northern state and the ugly reality on which the peace settlement rests. The killing of Kevin McDaid has been compared to a lynching, and when we examine the circumstances surrounding his death this is certainly an accurate description. He died outside his home in the Heights area of the town after being attacked by a bat and hammer wielding loyalist mob that had invaded the estate only minutes earlier. Mr McDaid had left his house to check on his sons and come to the aid of a man who had already been assaulted. As he lay dying the mob also battered Mr McDaid’s wife and a pregnant woman who had tried to defend him. The man who was assaulted is currently in a critical condition in hospital.
The bare facts alone speak of the barbarity of this attack. It was a blatantly sectarian in motivation and murderous in intent. But this is not just the attack itself that can be defined as sectarian. It is also the broader context in which it happened and the role played by police and politicians before and after which demonstrate fully its sectarian nature. There has been a recent history of loyalist violence in the town. Last August, loyalists invaded the some estate and lit a nationalist bonfire prematurely – one man was left with serous head injuries and a broken leg. Four weeks earlier an underage football team from Dublin taking part in the Milk Cup soccer tournament had be moved from Coleraine after an attack on the accommodation where they were staying. In July 2007 a Catholic father was threatened by loyalist paramilitaries after removing the name of his dead son from an Eleventh Night bonfire in Coleraine. So before the murder of Mr McDaid there was a high level of intimidation and violence in the area. Anyone seen as Catholic or nationalist, or any manifestation of nationalism was a target for loyalists. It has been reported that the immediate cause of the loyalist attack over the weekend was the erection of Celtic banners and bunting in Heights area.
Another aspect of the attack was the role played by the police. Eyewitnesses, including the murdered man’s wife and son, have told how police failed to defend the people of the area. Two officers in a car looked on as Mr McDaid was assaulted. It is not as if the loyalist attack was a surprise. Similar invasions had taken before, and there were warnings earlier in the day that another attack was imminent. An hour before the attack there were reports of loyalists gathering in the car park of a hotel. Given the logistics of Coleraine, with the mainly nationalist area lying across a river and only accessible by a number of bridges, it would not have been difficult for the police to prevent an attack. Indeed, some locals anticipating an attack had erected barriers on the road. They were persuaded to remove these after police assured them loyalists would not attack. It has been reported that a “mediation” police officer had told nationalists that an agreement had been reached with loyalists in the town that they would tolerate the flying of tricolours in the area on Sunday as long as they were taken down the following the morning. The police were facilitating the threats of loyalists and enforcing their version of what passes for tolerance of nationalists. In the end this tolerance amounted to zero.
In the aftermath of the killing the police have been downplaying the incident and minimising the role of loyalists, describing it as an “attack by Protestants on Catholics” by “maverick group of yobs”. This ignores the fact that there was a degree of orchestration in the attack, and the reports by eyewitnesses that the attackers were shouting UDA slogans. The police also called for no retaliation - as if there is equivalence between the intent and capacity of the victims of sectarian violence and its perpetrators. All the police statements have served to distort events and deflect blame away from loyalist organisations. A local Protestant Church minister added to this by putting the violence down to “quite a bit of drinking” that “spilled over”.
Unionist politicians were even more blatant, their statements ranging from the familiar two sides as bad as each other refrain, to denying loyalist involvement and even open justifications for the attack. Ulster Unionist assembly member David McClarty said it was too early to say who was involved, urging people to moderate their language and “not go throwing blame where no proof has been given”. DUP councillor, Adrian McQuillan claimed the killing was “Tit for tat” - the direct result of “there being tricolours up yesterday afternoon”. He said that this had been done to provoke a reaction from loyalists and that nationalists had “certainly got a reaction this time”. Such statements show the degree to which the call from Martin McGuinness for the “unequivocal condemnation of this sectarian murder from the political leaders of unionism” has been heeded. The general reaction to the murder has also been muted, contrasting strongly with the response the recent killings of security force personnel by republicans. This provoked wall-to-wall media coverage and outraged statements from political parties and Governments. We were told that these killings threatened the political, but the death of a Catholic at the hands of loyalist does not. The fact that it doesn’t serves to reveal the nature of that settlement and that a hierarchy of victims is still in place.
Rather than being shamed by this murder loyalists have actually been emboldened. In Coleraine they have followed up the murder of Mr McDaid by issuing a death threat to one of his sons and announcing that they are to go ahead with a band parade that passes close to the murder scene. However, this should hardly come as a surprise when we have a peace settlement in place that not only legitimises sectarianism but also accommodates the organisations responsible for inflaming it. The murder of Mr McDaid and the response to it demonstrate once again the sectarian nurture of unionism and the institutions of northern state. We are told things have changed – but over ten years on from the murder of Robert Hamill in Portadown in similar circumstances and three years on from the murder of Michael McIlveen in Ballymena - what has changed?