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Muted response to sectarian pogrom in North Antrim

JM Thorn 

21st August 2005

Over the last six months there has been a sustained loyalist campaign of intimidation against Catholics in the Ballymena area of north Antrim. This has included petrol, paint and pipe bomb attacks on Catholic homes, businesses and churches on an almost nightly basis. Much of this has centred on the village of Ahoghill, where a number of Catholic residents have been forced to flee their homes. The first of these was Mrs Kathleen McCaughey, a resident for more than fifty years, who left in July after months of harassment. This is how she described her experience: “Windows broken and paint bombs, petrol bombs then paint bombs again. My door was kicked down and I was told to get out within 48 hours. I like Ahoghill and I loved it but what can I do, I’m getting intimidated and threats what else could I do but move?” The latest to be forced out, after paint bombs were thrown through their living room window, were a Catholic couple who had been living in the village for ten years. Though such attacks are shocking, what is even more shocking is the response they have received from both police and politicians. This has ranged from silence, to half hearted condemnation, to blaming the victims. The latest victims are right to feel that “nothing has been said” to stop the attacks.

This is particularly true of the PSNI, whose statements and (in)action on the sectarian violence in north Antrim demonstrate yet again its inability to tackle loyalist violence. As reassurance and protection the police offered fire blankets and smoke detectors to Catholic residents. The police claimed this “unprecedented” move was based on intelligence that further attacks were imminent. Of course, if the police had foreknowledge, why couldn’t they prevent such attacks? Stunts like these send out the clear message that if you are a Catholic in a predominantly unionist area, sectarian attacks are inevitable. In these circumstances, when attacks are inevitable and the police can offer no protection, then the only option for those under attack is to get out. These sectarian assumptions underpin the statements made by the PSNI. For example, commenting on attacks on Catholics on the Ballymena area, the local commander, Chief Inspector Stephen Martin, claimed that they were linked to an upcoming republican parade in Ballymena. He endorsed the unionist/loyalist view that the attacks were a reaction to sectarian agitation by nationalists. Of course, the campaign of intimidation had been going on months before plans for any march were announced. Chief Inspector Martin also denied that the campaign was orchestrated, putting it down to a few individuals with loyalist sympathies.

Probably the most outrageous statement on the attacks in north Antrim came from the Deputy Chief Constable Paul Leighton. On a visit to Ahoghill he claimed that sectarianism was only “an element” of the campaign of intimidation but so too was “people not getting on with each other”. He blamed the general state of society and the “real hatred between communities”. While in is true that the north is deeply polarised, this in itself does not explain sectarian attacks. They do not just happen spontaneously but are orchestrated by loyalist organisations such as the UVF and UDA. In refusing to identify loyalist organisation as the culprits, and denying that their motive is sectarianism, the police are effectively saying that the victims have brought these attacks upon themselves. However, their testimony of victims refutes the police claims. All of them remark on the support they have received from their Protestant neighbours. As one of the victims said in response to Leighton’s statement: “This is quite upsetting to me and my family because we are in dispute with no one. The only reason we were targeted is because we are Catholics.”

The nonsense from the PSNI was echoed by unionist politicians, who half-heartedly condemned the attacks but then cited alleged incidents of sectarian harassment of Protestants to justify them. This was also the tenor of the statement from the Church of Ireland saying that “Protestants and Roman Catholics must reject and condemn all attacks made under the guise of loyalism or republicanism.” Such statements are highly disingenuous as they try to create a spurious balance between attacks on Catholics and Protestants. While there have been examples of sectarian attacks by nationalists, the fact is that the overwhelming number have been carried out by loyalists. To be “even-handed” in such circumstances is actually to give credibility to the loyalists. Also, there is no evidence that the attacks that have taken place of Protestants have been orchestrated by republican organisations.

The response of nationalist parties to the campaign of intimidation has been quite muted. Statements by the SDLP and an a column by nationalist commentator Brian Feeney in the Irish News on the situation give some indication of their frustration, but they offer no real solution. All they can to is appeal to the PSNI to do something, to “cut the mustard” in Feeney’s words. However, they are not going to push their criticism too far as this would expose their claims that police reform has been a success. The policing of Ahoghill clearly demonstrates the opposite. The same goes for Sinn Fein. Its response was to draw up a dossier listing the attacks, and calling on the DUP, in particular the MP for the area, Ian Paisley, to speak out more in order to stop them. This is even more ridiculous than appealing to the PSNI, as Ian Paisley and the DUP have built their careers on sectarian rabble-rousing. Of course Sinn Fein has to peddle the myth that the DUP have changed, despite everything they say or do demonstrating that they haven’t. Nationalists have to cling on to the fictions of police reform and power-sharing with unionists to maintain the peace process. To do otherwise would be to admit its failure. They have also accepted the sectarian logic of the peace process, according to which Catholics shouldn’t really be in towns like Ahoghill.



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