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United in deprivation

Two torn communities starved of assistance: Whitewell and White City

(Barry McCaffrey, Irish News)

With news of the IRA and loyalist ceasefires, most communities looked forward to a more peaceful future. However, Catholics and Protestants sharing a corner of north Belfast found their troubles were only beginning. Barry McCaffrey reports.

Serpentine Road used to be one of the most sought-after addresses in north Belfast. The detached houses are set in plush gardens and have the Cave Hill as a backdrop.

While the nearby Whitewell and Graymount estate were more modest, Catholics and Protestants were content to live in one of the few mixed areas left in the north of the city.

However, nationalists say that all changed after Drumcree 1997.

Sectarian violence that erupted after Orangemen were blocked from marching along Garvaghy Road in Portadown led to the erection of a 'peace line' separating Serpentine Road from the loyalist White City estate.

Community worker Paul McKernon says that an estimated 40 Catholic families were forced to move out of their homes as a result of intimidation at that time, with most opting never to return.

The majority of the boarded-up homes are now owned by the Housing Executive and have been used to rehouse people on the homeless waiting lists from other parts of north Belfast.

Serpentine Road residents were not the only people to be intimidated from their homes.

In 1997 as many as 90 Catholic families lived on the mixed Graymount estate nearby.

Mr McKernon says a campaign of concerted intimidation meant that only a handful of Catholics remain there today.

But over the last eight years, the worst scenes of violence have been witnessed on the Whitewell Road itself.

The community worker says he has lost count of the number of sectarian attacks on Catholic and Protestant homes in this time.

Invisible borders now divide the 800-odd nationalist houses on the lower Whitewell Road from the loyalist Shore Road below it and the 200 Protestant families in the White City estate above.

Apportioning blame for sectarian attacks has become something of a ritual.

But Mr McKernon says that since 2001, a series of killings has set community relations back by years.

In September 2001 Protestant teenager Thomas McDonald was knocked down and killed by Catholic woman Alison McKeown after her car was stoned on the Whitewell Road.

Mrs McKeown, who lived on the nearby Longlands estate, was later sentenced to two years' imprisonment for the teenager's manslaughter.

Community tensions were further heightened when the UDA murdered Catholic men Danny McColgan and Gerard Lawlor in January and July 2002.

Mr McColgan was from the Longlands estate and was shot dead by the UDA as he went to his work at the Post Office sorting depot on the Rathcoole estate, while Mr Lawlor was shot dead just yards from his home on the Whitewell Road.

While Mr McKernon says that tensions have been reduced from the height of the violence in 2002, an uneasy calm remains.

An Easter parade by republicans in March was attacked by loyalists.

Nationalists also criticised a PSNI decision to allow a controversial loyalist march along the Whitewell Road earlier this year.

In December last year 15-year-old Catholic schoolgirl Laura Cleary was beaten by loyalists with sticks as she and a friend walked along Serpentine Road.

In September an 18-year-old Catholic man was stabbed and seriously wounded by a loyalist gang on the Whitewell Road.

Catholic father-of-one Paul Denvir lost an eye in November 2003 when he was attacked with machetes and hammers by a loyalist gang at the bottom of the Whitewell Road.

Catholic priest Fr Dan Whyte also received death threats after criticising loyalist protests outside Carnmoney graveyard on Cemetery Sunday.

"Before Drumcree there wasn't really any problem in this area," Mr McKernon said.

"But in 1997 this place exploded and has never fully recovered.

"At the height of the trouble there was a riot on the Whitewell Road nearly every night.

"Thomas McDonald was killed in 2001 and then you had the murders of Danny McColgan and Gerard Lawlor.

"It was a very dark time for this area.

"While things have improved since then, there are still serious problems which remain unsolved."

Mr McKernon admits that nationalists, as well as loyalists, have been responsible for sectarian attacks.

"It would be totally wrong to say that loyalists have been responsible for all the attacks. There are idiots on both sides.

"There have been attacks from the nationalist side on a memorial at the spot where Thomas McDonald was killed and that is totally wrong.

"Every time that happens loyalists go over and destroy Danny McColgan's headstone in Carnmoney Cemetery. It is the McColgans and the McDonalds who I feel sorry for most because they go through all the pain again every time this happens.

"Grief is grief, no matter who you are."

Mr McKernon warns that a return to the violence is only ever a stone's throw away.

"One of the big problems is that there are no facilities for this community," he says.

"The kids have to stand on the streets because there is nowhere else for them to go.

"We are trying to hold awareness classes for young people to talk about drug and alcohol abuse and the problems of teenagers taking their own lives.

"But where do you do it? You can't do it out on the street.

"It's not just the youth. There is nowhere for the elderly in this community to come and meet each other.

"You will get sceptics accusing us of wanting hand-outs but that's not what this is about.

"If a community is starved of funding it is obviously going to suffer from huge social problems."

Mr McKernon says he supports a campaign for a play park for the Protestant community in White City estate.

"Those people have the same problems as us. They have a community centre while we have a play park.

"But the reality is that Catholics don't feel safe going to a community centre in White City, while Protestants wouldn't feel safe bringing their children to a park in our area.

"It's sad but that's the reality."

Mr McKernon also claims there is little or no support for the PSNI among nationalists living on the Whitewell Road.

"The actions of the RUC and later the PSNI during the last eight years means that few people, if any, have any time for them.

"People remember things like [former SDLP councillor] Martin Morgan getting his arm broken by a police baton.

"The young people feel totally alienated from the police because they are being constantly harassed in a very heavy-handed manner.

"As far as I am aware the same thing is happening to young people on the White City estate."

Mr McKernon adds that while there have been sporadic talks between nationalist and loyalist residents, little has been achieved.

"It's good that we talked but in reality nothing was resolved.

"All the old problems still remain.

"The DUP won't talk to Sinn Féin.

"Loyalist community workers do their best but at the end of the day they are looking over their shoulder at the paramilitaries.

"You end up with the high and the mighty, who have never even been to the Whitewell Road, sitting in some office at Stormont making decisions for us.

"Until people from Whitewell and White City are prepared to sit down, face-to-face, without preconditions the problem of sectarianism will remain with us."

* * *

The White City estate has become a prison for its predominantly loyalist residents, according to community worker John Montgomery.

Sandwiched between nationalist communities on the lower and upper Whitewell Road, White City is made up of approximately 350 houses with a population of around 1,500 residents, half of whom are under 18.

Mr Montgomery says that for the first time in many years there are now empty houses on the estate.

"Up to a few years ago there was a waiting list of people wanting to come and live in White City," he said.

"At the present time there's no-one on the waiting list and we have eight empty houses."

While the Whitewell Road had escaped the worst of the Troubles, serious violence erupted after the first Drumcree stand off in 1997.

Since then the area has witnessed repeated sectarian attacks and rioting between loyalists and their nationalist neighbours.

In 1998 the violence led to the erection of a 'peace line' between White City and the suburban Serpentine Road.

It is thought to be one of the only peace lines ever erected in a middle-class area.

In one of the most serious incidents in September 2001 Protestant teenager Thomas McDonald (16) was knocked down and killed by Catholic mother-of-six Alison McKeown after he threw a stone at the car she was driving along the Whitewell Road.

Mrs McKeown was found guilty of the teenager's manslaughter and sentenced to two years in jail.

Flowers left at the scene where the teenager was killed have been repeatedly destroyed since his death.

Mr Montgomery says that such attacks have caused untold damage to relations between the two communities.

"It got to the point where we actually decided it would be better to have a memorial garden for Thomas McDonald inside the estate.

"The family and friends still place flowers at the spot where he was killed but the memorial garden in the estate is the main focal point now.

"It is less heartache for the McDonald family to know that the memorial to their son is not being attacked."

The loyalist community worker says that various efforts had been made to reduce tensions in the area in recent years.

"We have taken away the red, white and blue kerb stones, we have reduced the number of flags and there will be no bonfire on the estate this year."

Significantly, there have also been talks with nationalists living on the Whitewell Road.

"There was an agreement with nationalists that flags on the main road would be taken down on certain dates and that has been adhered to on both sides."

However, Mr Montgomery admits there is still an uneasy calm between the two communities despite a drastic reduction in street violence over the last number of years.

"Both sides have been to blame for recent attacks.

"A Catholic teenager was attacked by a group of Protestant girls a few months ago.

"A Protestant schoolboy was attacked by a nationalist gang after that.

"There have been petrol bomb attacks on houses.

"These attacks go on but at least both sides are trying to stay away from the blame game, which gets us nowhere.

"There was a situation a couple of months ago that a Catholic guy was found lying drunk in the middle of White City one night.

"We got the police to come and take him home to his own area.

"His mother sent word up to us later thanking us for getting him home safely.

"If we can do things like that it is better for everyone."

But the loyalist community worker said that both sides remained entrenched over the issue of parades.

"We put forward proposals to have a certain number of marches on either side being allowed to parade along the Whitewell Road.

"The nationalists couldn't sign up to it because they only have two parades every year and we have six.

"We wanted six parades on either side but they wouldn't agree."

In February nationalists reacted angrily when police forced a loyalist parade up the Whitewell Road, which organisers insisted was in aid of the tsunami appeal.

"The local Orange lodge is not allowed to march to their hall at the bottom of the road.

"It is not allowed to march up the road because that is deemed to be another nationalist area.

"We are prisoners in our own area."

Mr Montgomery said the ban on marching fed into the growing sense of isolation felt by Protestants within White City.

"People in this community feel that there is a definite plan by the powers-that-be to run this community down to push Protestants out of White City so that Catholics can come in and take it over.

"There is a feeling that we are under siege, we are surrounded on all sides by nationalists.

"People say this is just like the way the Torrens estate which was run down a few years ago and the Protestants were forced to move out.

"The only shop in this estate is a steel container, which we had to get ourselves.

"We have a community centre here but we can only open it on a part-time basis because we can't get funding for any workers.

"We have been fighting for a play park for the kids on the estate for 10 years but we still haven't got anywhere.

"People joke that if we had a Sinn Féin councillor representing us we would have had a play park up and running years ago. The joke is only half in jest.

"Some of the unionist politicians help but others just telephone you when they want something or there's been trouble with the nationalists.

"They want you to police the interface but they don't want to fund any projects which might help to stop the trouble in the first place."

The community worker called for authorities to realise that money must be spent to address the area's core problems.

"The only time there is any funding to take local children out of the area is when there's a riot," he said.

"They don't seem to understand that there wouldn't be trouble if there was proper funding for youth projects in the first place.

"The powers-that-be not only expect us to police the interfaces but they want us to be social workers on the estate as well.

"People are constantly coming to me with problems about housing, DHSS and a million other things.

"You end up asking yourself what the statutory agencies are actually doing for this community.

"We had the ridiculous situation recently when one of the mediation groups telephoned us to ask if we would take down flags.

"The people in this community agreed and took the flags down. The mediation group got £25,000 for a telephone call but this community got nothing.

"The government spend millions policing this area but they can't find £25,000 to build a children's play-park.

"You end up asking yourself if the powers-that-be really want to sort out the problems in this area.

"For the Protestants living in White City, the lack of proper community funding is every bit as bad as the problems we have with nationalists."

June 14, 2005

This article appeared first in the June 13, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News