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The town where DUP won't share power with anybody

(Maeve Connolly, Irish News)

The DUP in Ballymena has been accused of sectarianism, racism and homophobia. While some supporters simply laugh off such behaviour nationalists say it is no longer a joke. Maeve Connolly reports on a troubled town and attempts to build a new future

DUP representatives in Ballymena have been dismissed as dinosaurs who are out of touch, but the reality is that the party's 15 councillors were elected to wield power and its youngest member is 29 years old.

These 13 men and two women are joined by five from the UUP, two SDLP, one Independent and one Sinn Féin councillor.

Sinn Féin made history last year when Monica Digney won the party's first seat.

Ms Digney has complained that when she addresses the council DUP members drum their fingers on the table and talk loudly to one another.

The SDLP's two councillors – PJ McAvoy and Declan O'Loan – have been elected representatives for 21 and 13 years respectively.

The DUP does not share power on the council and so the mayor's chain has continually hung around the necks of unionist politicians, while the DUP also chairs every major committee such as finance, economic development, environmental health and planning.

The only exception was the appointment of an SDLP deputy mayor in 2000.

Approximately one fifth of the town's population of 29,000 is Catholic but Catholics are despondent about a council which they believe puts the interests of Protestant constituents ahead of everyone else.

Last November the DUP was accused of stealing a seat from the nationalist electorate after the death of SDLP councillor Margaret Gribben.

Council rules allow for a new councillor belonging to the party of the deceased to be co-opted.

However, while co-opting is common practice elsewhere, the DUP would not permit the move and instead forced a by-election. It was clear that in a head-to-head contest, the SDLP could not hold the seat it had captured in the local government election.

In protest the SDLP did not put forward a candidate and so the DUP's William Wilkinson – its youngest councillor at 29 – was elected.

The SDLP's PJ McAvoy said the DUP sought "total domination".

"I don't think there's any thought in their head of sharing anything with anyone – nationalist or unionist," Mr McAvoy said.

"It's not a good way to run any local council in the sense of sending out a message to the community.

"Twenty per cent of the population is Catholic and they obviously feel ostracised when they hear and see things like that happening.

"I've had Protestant people saying to me that it's not right but they won't come out publicly and say that.

"There are some DUP members who would be willing to go down the route of getting involved with other parties and formulating a more fair system but when it comes to the vote the hardliners have the final say."

Mr McAvoy said Ballymena should follow the example set by the nationalist-dominated Strabane and the predominantly unionist Larne councils which have respectively elected a DUP chair and SDLP mayor.

"Do they not realise that beyond Ballymena there's another world that is often looking towards them with derision?"

When Monica Digney's proposal to create a committee dedicated to alleviating sectarianism was rejected by the council last month she said it had sent out "a message of intolerance".

The DUP was also embroiled in the long-running loyalist protest at the Catholic Church of Our Lady in Harryville which began in 1996 after Orangemen were forbidden to march through the nationalist village of Dunloy.

Loyalists picketed Saturday evening Mass for 20 months and violent scenes were commonplace with the cars of Massgoers attacked and a number of people injured.

Policing costs totalled more than £2 million and 50 officers were hurt.

The church itself was attacked on numerous occasions and the parochial house has been uninhabited since. Both have been attacked randomly over the years.

To this day Saturday evening Mass is cancelled during July and August.

The then mayor – the UUP's James Curry – stood with Massgoers in a show of solidarity.

However, DUP councillor and former Ireland rugby international Davy Tweed won his Ballymena council seat on the back of the protest in 1997 and was joined there by party stalwart Roy Gillespie.

Mr McAvoy said the picket could have been ended immediately by the "silent majority" wielding economic power.

"The common consensus was that the business people did not get involved in any way so in many ways let the louts do what they wanted," he said.

The DUP has, however, been credited with setting up a good relations initiative.

A similar strategy has been running for five years but during his 2005/06 term the then DUP mayor, Tommy Nicholl, established his own initiative which brought Church and business leaders together.

But he embarked on the tentative cross-community project without the full support of his party. Four DUP councillors either voted against the scheme or abstained from voting at a council meeting.

William Wilkinson attributes part of the blame for sectarianism in the council area to a lack of leadership within the SDLP and Sinn Féin which he claims has allowed dissident republicans to "recruit" young people and "send them down the town with violence on their minds".

He said there was a power struggle in the north of Ballymena (a predominantly nationalist area) between the two parties.

Mr Wilkinson said Sinn Féin had repeated a tactic in the area which he said it employs across the north of "provoking a situation" and exploiting it but had lost footing to dissident republicans.

In his opinion the DUP's grip on power is not detrimental to the borough.

"We don't see it as a lack of power sharing but the existence of a fully functioning democracy – an example repeated across the UK and also in the Republic of Ireland.

"There is a lot of mischievous comment by nationalists around the failure, as they see it, to power share but that is a rejection by nationalists of the ballot box... it is solely on the outcome of elections that we move forward... We are sending out a message that we respect democracy."

At last month's council meeting the DUP's Maurice Mills said "people are ganging up against the Protestant majority in this town" and that "unionism is in a battle to save our country".

Mr Wilkinson said the much-quoted fear that Protestantism is 'under threat' was true in the environs of Ballymena.

"Our culture is being attacked," he said.

"Throughout the Troubles we didn't see [such] levels of Sinn Féin support, so for the Protestant community whenever they see the rise of Sinn Féin and their neighbours voting for Sinn Féin they see that as indirect support for a terrorist organisation.

"When they see some individuals bussed in to stand, protest, monitor around the periphery of parades they see that as an attack on their culture. In Dunloy they see the outcome of the attitude of a Catholic village which has driven Protestants out culturally.

"My experiences of minority unionist communities living in majority nationalist areas is one I would not like nationalists to live in and in Ballymena, thankfully, they don't."

Mr Wilkinson said Protestant people in Ballymena had shown "remarkable restraint" in the face of provocation.

The "worst-case scenario" would be if they were "pushed and pushed... to such an extent that that restraint is broken", he said.

As the family of Ballymena teenager Michael McIlveen spent their final hours around his hospital bed before turning off his life-support machine one of his uncles got a telephone call from North Antrim MP Ian Paisley.

The DUP leader offered his sympathies to the Catholic family and prayed aloud down the phone line.

But commentators have said this compassion was not evident in the comments he made to the media.

On the same evening as he contacted the family Mr Paisley linked the sectarian attack on Michael to the flying of tricolours in Ballymena, claiming republicans had broken their promise to Harryville loyalists.

"There's problems in Ballymena when people don't keep their word," Mr Paisley added.

"If people are going to enter an agreement and that's carried out by one side and then the other side flaunt it... they are causing trouble."

SDLP councillor Declan O'Loan said his comments were "disgusting and scurrilous" and supported the notion that the DUP was "at the core of community relations' problems in Ballymena".

The McIlveen family have spoken warmly of Mr Paisley and the support they felt he offered to them.

They invited him to Michael's funeral but the MP cited Westminster commitments and instead visited the family in their Dunvale home three days before the funeral.

However, at the same time as more than 1,000 Catholic and Protestant people gathered in Ballymena to pay their final respects to the popular teenager Mr Paisley stood up in Westminster and made more contentious remarks.

"There is a strange significance to this particular murder because those who are charged cross over the religious divide, both Protestants and the Roman Catholics, which seems to me a very strange thing," he said.

Tony Blair congratulated Mr Paisley for his contribution at the time but in the days that followed prominent DUP colleagues went on to make disparaging comments about the McIlveen family and have since referred to the teenager's death as an "alleged murder".

July 4, 2006

This article appeared first in the July 3, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

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