Torn apart by their own kind: To Protestant paramilitaries, even those who merely drink or work with Catholics may be seen as traitors to the cause. Maire Nic Suibhne talks to their victims

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Only a month ago, John, a Protestant from Belfast, had a family, a decent job, a home and a car. But in one week it was all taken away from him because some of his friends were Catholics.

'One Monday night, the knock came on the door just after 12. I opened it not thinking. Three fellows in masks.

' 'You. Out here. We want to talk to you. You're spending too much time with Fenians and you're doing too much work for Fenians. What's wrong with your own? It looks as if you like Taigues (a pejorative term for Catholics) better.'

'The only crack (fun) around here is in the one pub, a Catholic pub,' John says. 'They know that as well as I do myself. They're no strangers here either. I'm not the only Protestant drinking there.'

Friendship and contact across the sectarian divide have always existed and, on the whole, been tolerated. No longer.

'Drinking with Catholics can seriously damage your health,' proclaim leaflets that have been shoved through Protestants' letterboxes by the loyalist paramilitaries. Notes and bullets left in pockets at the workplace send a chill warning that relations between the two communities must end at the factory gate. The apparent offer of an olive branch to Sinn Fein and the IRA by Downing Street has led to fears among the paramilitaries that Unionism has been abandoned by Westminster and that the Protestant community is in danger of extinction.

They are fighting for their very survival. Any contact with the Catholic/Nationalist population is viewed as a sign of treachery and collusion. One person has already been killed and a number are on the run after refusing to heed the threats. That was what John did after the midnight visit by the three masked men.

'I carried on as usual. Even if I wanted to make any difference in who I work for, and I never have, you haven't that choice. There's not enough work to pick and choose. People around here are just ordinary people trying to earn a living and help each other out. I make no difference between Catholic and Protestant.

'On the Friday night I was getting out of the car outside the house. Two fellows grabbed me. They were waiting behind the wall. And the third one - he was the one who did all the talking - says: 'We told you not to go into the pub.'

'The strange thing is you think if something like that happens, you'd be frightened. At the time I wasn't. I was angry, very angry. Not one of them was a day over 18.

' 'I'll drink where I like,' I said, 'I'll choose my own company.' 'No you will not and you won't work where you like either. You're no better than a fucking Taigue yourself.'

'They got me down. I won't tell you exactly what they did, but it was a good thing I wasn't expecting to go on my honeymoon that night. All I could hear was the noise of the wallops and 'Taigue', 'Taigue', 'Taigue', 'How do you like that now?'. They got great sport out of it as if I really was a Taigue.

'After that I was let known they had the names, addresses, workplaces and habits of all my near relations. Most of that would be known to everyone around here, but there were a few things that scared me. Those boys aren't smart enough to do that kind of detective work so it's either being done higher up or by somebody else - the security services. Or it's someone who knows us very well, a near friend.

'You can face danger yourself, but if anything happened to one of the family . . . I knew then I had to go.

'I'm living now between people for the past 10 days, on the run. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning I forget what's happened to me, before I realise I'm not in my own bed. It's hard to believe it's happened.

'But I'm not sorry I did what I did. As soon as you give in to the likes of them you're no better than them. For now they have the better of me. But I'll be back and I have my self-respect.

'The only people to do well out of the Troubles are the gangster paramilitaries. Yes, some of them believe in it, but a lot of people made a lot of money and there's a whole young crowd coming up behind that sees the lifestyle that can be got out of it. These people never did an honest day's work in their lives.

'I'll go away for a while. A few years. I hope I'll get work. Things might get better. They couldn't get much worse. Look at me, a grown man, ducking round the back of the houses to get a glimpse of his own children going to bed.'

There are others like John who are too frightened to come forward for fear of identification. A more common experience is that of Peter. While his life may not be in imminent danger, his livelihood has been wrecked. Once a well-paid skilled worker, he can now find only part-time employment and depends on supplementary benefit. The jobs that used to come his way dried up when it became known that his attitude to Catholics was not politically correct.

His politics conform to a left-wing radicalism that has all but died out on the mainland. But it was only when he landed in jail that he saw a common interest among the working class, no matter what their religious allegiance.

'That was when I really got to know Catholics. I got on well with them the years I was there, and when I went into Catholic houses I never saw anything there we did not have. We are all just working people.

'Historically, Protestants got the jobs and Catholics didn't. It didn't go on skills or abilities. It should be fair employment for all.

'Our problem is we have no leadership. That's why the paramilitaries are taking over. Our politicians will always side with the English Conservatives. And the Catholics have taken over all our ideas on social issues.

'We're for Maastricht and the Social Chapter, but our representatives voted with the Government. There is no one to speak for us.

'This country (Northern Ireland) has no natural resources but its scenery and its working people. I want an independent province - maybe we could do it. Britain can't wait to get rid of us. Its going to get very bad. If I were younger, I'd leave, maybe go to the South. No one there has ever said a bad word to me. Most people's ideas about the South are 30 years out of date.'

May Blood is a distinguished trade unionist and community worker in east Belfast. She has helped to set up projects and training schemes for the area's alienated youth. In her lifetime she has seen the balance of power shift away from what she, and others like her, see as the true roots of the Protestant working class, leaving nothing but a culture of despair. It is in this atmosphere that the current violence thrives. 'In the past it was the shipyard workers who produced the councillors who went to City Hall, the MPs who went to Stormont. They came from the community and knew it. There isn't that now. Our representatives are middle class.'

As the Protestant worker's voice declined, direct rule has allowed the Catholics to develop independently and their representatives have shown considerable skills in developing their own communities. The vibrancy of Catholic ghettos is in marked contrast to their Protestant neighbours.

'There's nobody like John Hume doing a really good job for our people. This is one of the most deprived areas. Even our local councillors, if you asked them about economic development, they just look at you. Ask them something about a paramilitary incident and they know every single detail.'

With no leadership, poor education and little prospect of jobs, the disaffected youth are an ideal recruiting ground for the paramilitaries.

'The Protestant youth feel as alienated as the Catholics used to. How would you feel if you got up in the morning and nobody wanted you? They are good young people, but they have seen too much. The paramilitaries can offer them a bob in their pocket and recognition. A huge amount of talent is just being thrown away.'

The Protestant church, the support and focus for Protestant identity for generations, is seen to have turned its back on the people in their time of greatest need.

'The church is of no consequence up here,' May says. 'I think the Protestant church has, with few exceptions, let the people down throughout all the Troubles. I go to church every Sunday. I cannot remember a single member of the church approaching me to ask to help with our problems.'

At the moment there seems little political will to tackle the kinds of problems May Blood confronts. The long-term tragedy for the Protestant community is that it appears to be turning in on itself.

John and Peter are pseudonyms.

(Photographs omitted)

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