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Orange Order, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Seven years after Agreement, sectarianism stronger than ever

(by Suzanne Breen, Sunday Tribune)

Lorcan Grew was only hours in the world when it started. "I was out having a few drinks to celebrate his birth when loyalists hurled paint bombs through the window. Our furniture was destroyed," says his father Gareth.

"I rang the hospital to tell them not to let my wife watch TV or read any papers. It's not the kind of news to hear just after giving birth."

When Catherine Grew left hospital, the family discussed leaving their north Belfast home, but decided to stay. "We thought it couldn't get worse," says Gareth, a supermarket manager.

Even by Northern Ireland standards, the pictures of 13 week-old Lorcan, splattered in orange paint, are horrendous. His leg was cut by glass.

Three Catholic homes were targeted by the loyalist gang, who wore combat gear and scarves, in the religiously mixed Cliftondene Crescent on Wednesday evening.

"My wife heard a bang and went outside. They were standing at the bottom of the front garden. Our two-year-old son Fionn was playing there with his friend Danielle. The loyalists had smashed the window.

"My wife begged them not to do anything else. They threw a petrol bomb over the heads of the children. It missed my wife by three inches. The door-step went on fire."

A paint bomb, thrown into the house, covered Lorcan in his pram. Gareth fights back tears as he packs his family's belongings. "My eldest son, who is six, has told me to remember to bring all his toys," he says.

It's been a dreadful week in the greater Ardoyne area, with both Catholic and Protestant homes targeted. Unfortunately, it's not a one-off. A report just published shows that, 11 years after the ceasefires and seven years after the Belfast Agreement, sectarian violence has substantially increased across the North, with far more attacks on churches, GAA clubs and Orange halls than pre-1994.

More people are being intimidated from their homes. "It was assumed all this would stop with the peace process," says Dr Neil Jarman, the report's author. "It hasn't, yet it gets very little attention. The response would be completely different anywhere else in the UK.

"When there were racial disturbances in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham in 2001, major investigations were ordered immediately. There was a Home Office report and a ministerial response within six months.

"After the first serious trouble in North Belfast in 1996, we waited five years for a report and there still hasn't been an adequate official response. There is shock and horror when 500 people riot in Bradford. The same number on Belfast streets last weekend hardly caused a ripple."

While some individual district command units did collect figures for sectarian attacks, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) only began doing so on a province-wide basis last September.

Jarman, who is director of the Institute for Conflict Research, says the Northern Ireland Office is only now developing a system for recording and analysing hate crime. Even when the Assembly sat, it addressed sectarianism only in relation to football, he says.

He believes sectarianism remains rampant because little symbolically unites the community: "There isn't one football team, one flag, or one head of state to rally behind. Those things actually divide people here bitterly."

In his home in the mainly Protestant Hesketh Road, John Mussen, 82, surveys the damage from a paint bomb. His sofa, china cabinet, and carpet, are destroyed. The war veteran, who has cancer, was in bed when neighbours saw men in Celtic shirts arrive.

"I don't know why they picked on us, I'm not in any group, not even an old people's one," he says. "The wife says we're too old to move. I hope it doesn't happen next time Celtic and Rangers play. No football match is worth this."

Over on Ardoyne Road, Collette Cassidy and Catherine Williams are also cleaning up after paint bombs. "There's rarely a night something isn't thrown at our homes, whether it's stones, bottles, ball-bearings or worse," says Catherine, a mother of six.

"I'd only moved in two days when loyalists smashed the windows. I've drop-bars but every night I put the child's pram and step ladders across the door as well."

Collette, a mother of eight, had moved in a fortnight when the attacks started: "They threw acid bombs on Easter Sunday morning, shouting 'get out you Fenian bastards'."

Catherine claims the police are useless: "They send only one Land Rover. It sits there at night and the police chat away to the loyalists. They let them come down and threaten us. Our lives are spent watching the door. It's impossible to even cook in peace. You put on the dinner, something happens, and it's ruined. The local Chinese does great business."

DUP Assembly member Diane Dodds condemns all sectarian attacks: "Paint bombing Protestant pensioners, or Catholic families, isn't striking a blow for Ireland or for God and Ulster.

"But it annoys me when middle-class people look at north Belfast, throw up their hands and say 'oh it's them again'. This isn't north Down – 40% of the killings in Belfast took place in a two-mile radius in this area.

"People have been brutalised. There's an awful lot of pain ingrained. Trevor Kell, a taxi driver doing a day's work, was shot dead by republicans in 2000 because he was a Protestant. His family is still suffering."

Just a few streets away from the recently attacked Catholic homes, a pink flower is tied to a lamp-post where loyalists shot dead Catholic labourer, Brian Service, in 1998. Deerpark is a beautiful, tree-lined street, but dozens of houses are boarded up or for sale because it's so dangerous.

Teach na Failte, the INLA prisoners' centre in Ardoyne, sports posters of Che Guevara and James Connolly. Paul Little of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, the INLA's political wing, claims sectarian attacks are unsurprising because the Northern state was "founded on sectarianism".

He says "young anti-social elements", not republican paramilitaries, are attacking local Protestants, but the UDA is orchestrating attacks on nationalists. "If Protestants are under siege, it's from natural forces. Those able to move out have done so. The Catholic population is expanding but it's no conspiracy."

Some nationalists allege the UDA is actually attacking Protestant homes "just like Johnny Adair did a few years ago to stir up trouble". Loyalists firmly contest this. "The UDA isn't attacking any homes. Nationalists are in denial of their own bigotry," says one figure. "They want to ethnically cleanse this area." Sinn Féin has condemned all sectarian attacks.

University of Ulster lecturer, Dr Pete Shirlow, has conducted several studies into sectarianism. In one project, his team interviewed 4,800 people from 12 Belfast estates.

"Divisions are growing in working-class Belfast," he says. "People aren't ashamed to admit they're sectarian. It's non-sectarian people who worry about speaking out."

Shirlow found the peace process generation – those in their teens and 20s with least memory of the war – were most sectarian. Pensioners – with direct experience of the conflict and relationships with the other community pre-1969 – were the least bigoted.

"There is less integration now, especially among young Catholics and Protestants, than a decade ago – 68% of 18-25 year olds have never had a meaningful conversation with anyone from the other community," he says.

Some children, who went on cross-community schemes, then found it easier to recognise and target each other in riots. The study also found 58% of people unwilling to use shops, leisure or medical facilities located across the religious divide.

"Some men who were sick sent their wives to the doctor to report their symptoms rather than enter the other area themselves," says Shirlow. "Protestants who shopped in Curley's (in west Belfast) because it was cheap put their groceries into Tesco bags so they wouldn't be hassled on returning home. One Catholic fell out with a neighbour for shopping on the Shankill."

Shirlow is strongly pro-peace process but says growing divisions in many areas must be acknowledged. The Northern conflict, once ideological, is now more blatantly sectarian, he argues: "The border is off the agenda so people focus more on culture and identity.

"It's about flags, Orange marches, football matches, Irish street signs and symbolic things. Most violence in nationalist areas was previously directed at British soldiers and police. Now, it appears to be more sectarian."

Everything in north Belfast is disputed. At Ardoyne shops, a huge mural announces: "Arkansas – Ardoyne, it's black and white. Everyone has the right to live free from sectarian harassment." UFF is scrawled over the bottom of it.

August 30, 2005

This article appears in the August 28, 2005 edition of the Sunday Tribune.