Burnings, beatings, torture ... another weekend in Northern Ireland

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The Independent Online
Arson attacks on both Catholic and Protestant church property in Northern Ireland were yesterday denounced by the head of the Church of Ireland as "taking sectarianism to the ultimate limit."

The condemnation, from Archbishop Robin Eames, was rigorous and forthright, yet it seems unlikely that it will staunch the tide of burnings which has reached new heights over the last year.

The burnings of churches and church halls have, like paramilitary "punishment" beatings, almost become part of the background static of what might be termed sub-terrorist violence. The hundreds of beatings and scores of burnings have become almost a matter of routine.

Most of the attacks have been on Catholic property, with systematic burnings not just of churches but also of schools in many parts of Northern Ireland. In the latest incidents a blaze destroyed the 200-year-old Mullavilly Catholic Church at Tandragee, Co Armagh, late on Sunday night. This was the fifth attack on church property in less than a week.

At the weekend arsonists destroyed another Catholic church, St MacNissis at Randalstown, Co Antrim, and damaged St Comgall's in Antrim town. A Church of Ireland hall at Donaghmore, Co Tyrone, was also damaged.

Such attacks have always been a feature of Northern Ireland, going back well before the outbreak of the Troubles in the late 1960s. But last year's Orange stand-off at Drumcree, Co Armagh, produced a rash of incidents, and since then they have been maintained at a high level.

The attacks rarely cause serious casualties but can spread a great deal of bitterness and mistrust, especially in small rural communities. They also cost substantial amounts of money: damage to schools alone over recent months has been put at around pounds 20m.

Archbishop Eames declared: "Those responsible must not be allowed to claim that they are acting on behalf of the vast majority of decent people in either community. These are one more example of the sickness which lies at the root of so many of our problems here - naked, corrosive sectarianism."

The Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr Patrick Walsh, described the attacks as an abomination.

The Mullavilly parish priest, Father Kieran MacOscar, said yesterday: "Our church is completely destroyed. Only four walls remain. A parishioner rang me in the middle of the night to say it was on fire, and by the time I got there the blaze was out of control."

A number of the affected churches were visited by both Catholics and Protestants anxious to express their sympathy. The Rev Brian Harper, the Church of Ireland rector who also lives at Mullavilly, said: "Everyone is very shocked. There is no way the Protestant community here would want anything like this at all."

In the latest punishment attack, meanwhile, loyalists beat a 14-year- old boy in front of his mother in their east Belfast home. A group of masked men broke down the front door with a sledgehammer and beat the boy and a man with pick-axe handles. Each suffered a broken arm.

A Protestant man from Lisburn, Co Antrim, yesterday appeared in court charged with four murders between 1987 and 1989. He was said to have walked into a police station and asked to speak to detectives.