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The town where hatred burns stronger than hope in Ballymena

Sectarian violence has returned to blight Ballymena. Michael Streeter reports on the attacks on Catholics
A 300-strong contingent of police in riot gear was needed in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, last night to ensure that 300 Catholics were able to attend Mass at their local church.

The tough police presence ensured that a picket of Our Lady's, Harryville, by extreme loyalists, which has been growing in violence in recent weeks, passed off relatively peacefully with just two arrests.

The picket has been mounted, the loyalists say, in response to the blocking by the RUC of a loyalist parade through the overwhelmingly Catholic village of Dunloy in September. The trouble worsened when a second attempt to hold the parade two weeks ago was also blocked.

Tension had mounted in the previous few days, with arson incidents at three Catholic schools in the town and attacks on Catholic homes. They dominated the headlines in a week when Ballymena thought it had some good news: the opening on Tuesday of Northern Ireland's first Sainsbury's store, bringing hundreds of new jobs and the company slogan "A fresh approach" - just the the pre-Christmas boost this prosperous County Antrim community wanted.

So serious was the situation that last night Ballymena's Ulster Unionist mayor, Councillor James Currie, three fellow unionist councillors and 12 Protestant churchmen from nearby churches all journeyed to the church in a remarkable show of solidarity with their Catholic neighbours - to show, as Councillor Currie said, that freedom of worship should apply to all communities.

"I'm overjoyed at at the solidarity these people are showing us and I hope it is a good omen for the future," said Father Frank Mullen of Our Lady's. One of the demonstrators sounded a different note, however. "We're not going to give up, and we're going to come back next weekend and again and again until we can march through Dunloy," he said.

The sight of this new sectarianism, along with nationalist boycotts of Protestant businesses in many outlying districts, is for many a warning that the province risks a return to the grim days of the past, after the unfulfilled promise of the defunct ceasefire.

Alderman Tommy Nicholl, a Democratic Unionist Party councillor in Ballymena, described the events as "depressing". He said: "There is a danger that we are being pulled back into the Dark Ages."

Dr Richard English, lecturer in politics at Queen's University, Belfast, however, suggested that developments during the ceasefire actually fuelled the current wave of discontent. People thought that no bombs going off was a good thing - which obviously in many ways it was. But unionists thought that bombs were not going off because too much had been given to the nationalists.

"This lethal combination of unionist fears and nationalist expectations were dashed when police allowed July's Orange parade through Drumcree," he said. "It has probably made relations between the two communities even worse."

Unionists claim - rightly - that the Ballymena picket is backed by a tiny minority. But Dr English says this is a hallmark of the province's politics. "Very small groups of people can tap into the fear and determine the agenda and rhetoric."

The disturbances have been strongly condemned by unionists, including Dr Ian Paisley's son, Ian Paisley Jnr, who has received death threats from loyalists for his pains. Progressive Unionist Party leader David Ervine, whose party has close links with paramilitaries, denied they were behind the picket.

Just who has organised the protests is unclear. A previously unknown group, called the Harryville Residents' Association, has claimed responsibility but sends out its statements anonymously, with only a codeword to identify them. Even local journalists say they have no idea who is behind the HRA.

In one sinister statement last week the association vowed to continue the protest until the Dunloy march is allowed and rounded on unionist leaders for being "afraid" to represent their own people in the "battle".

Unionist suggestions that the culprits are outsiders from Belfast ring hollow for Catholic Rosaleen Downey. Her home on the town's Protestant Ballykeel Estate was attacked by thugs at 2am on Friday. "They wrecked my house just because I am a Catholic. I thought I was going to die," she said.

A family friend - a Protestant - and her 18-year-old daughter Kerry were beaten up. "She recognised some of them. She's heard since they were warning that if she told the police who it was, they would kill her." Despite the ordeal, Mrs Downey, now homeless, intends to continue visiting the Catholic church.

Father Mullen, whose own house was wrecked in July, says the current intimidation of ordinary worshippers is "disgraceful."

He says he himself cannot go out without being called names such as "Fenian bastard" - sometimes by children as young as 10. He insists the sole issue is the freedom for people to worship in their chosen way.

Dr Harry Allen, Moderator of the Presbyterian church, also condemns the pickets as being against Protestant principles and believes the current wave of sectarianism, including the boycotts, is succeeding where more than 20 years of IRA bombings failed. "It is deeply damaging to communities," he said.

Those boycotts still occur in rural towns such as Castlederg, Co Tyrone, where two Protestant businessmen told the Independent on Sunday that trade was still down by up to 20 per cent since the July boycott began.

One described how the organisers had waited in cars outside his shop, watching who went in and then bluntly telling any Catholics: "This is your last warning - stay away."

Castlederg Councillor Derek Hussey, an Ulster Unionist delegate to the Northern Ireland Forum, said the boycotts were "probably more penetrative" in their impact than direct IRA violence of the past.

Meanwhile, as customers flooded in to the new Sainsbury's store in Ballymena, many observers felt gloomy at the effect these current divisions are having on the stumbling peace process. Some see little sign of a new IRA ceasefire; they also fear that if the issue of marching is still unresolved next year, the whole damaging cycle of Drumcree could repeat itself.

One senior unionist figure warned darkly that despite encouraging signs such as new businesses and stores, events were close to getting out of hand.

He said: "If the craziness of Ballymena goes on, then I fear things will be worse than they have ever been."