Widowed by a sectarian hate mob

It started with a football match – and ended with a shocking return to Ulster's dark days
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The bruised and battered face of Evelyn McDaid, newly widowed by a "maverick group of yobs" who attacked her and killed her husband, graphically illustrates that political peace in Northern Ireland has not eradicated violence.

Mrs McDaid, a Protestant, and her Catholic husband, Kevin, fell victim to a mob which poured out of a pub and drove to a Catholic area of the Co Londonderry town of Coleraine, enraged by reports that nationalist flags were on display.

This led to what police described as "bedlam", with "huge disturbances" involving up to 60 people engaged in hand-to-hand fighting. Mr McDaid was beaten and kicked and died shortly afterwards.

"I went across to help him and they beat me while they beat him," Mrs McDaid said yesterday. "Then my neighbour had to step in to save me, and she was pregnant and they beat her too and she shouted 'I'm pregnant' and they didn't care."

Mrs McDaid, who was given a brain scan after suffering a head injury and two black eyes, added: "He was trying to keep the peace. He didn't like all this nonsense. He wanted peace. He tried to help."

The incident took place in the tense aftermath of Sunday's key football match between Rangers and Celtic, teams which in Northern Ireland have fervent followings divided along sectarian lines. Tensions had been evident before the match, which Rangers won to take the league title.

Amid reports that loyalists intended to stage victory celebrations close to the Catholic Heights area of the town, negotiations were held involving neighbourhood police officers and both Protestant and Catholic representatives.

Local Catholics had erected barricades and put up flags following what Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay described as rumours of "a number of exhibitions of triumphalism coming from the loyalist community."

Things appeared to have been calmed down by the talks, in which Mr McDaid took part. But it did not work. A group of up to 40 men descended on the estate and in the ensuing rampage Mr McDaid was murdered. He had four children, including a foster child.

Twelve men have been arrested by police while an inquiry has been announced into the police handling of the incident.

Mr McDaid's death has illustrated that today's much more peaceful Northern Ireland is still subject to eruptions of brutal violence, which is often entirely unexpected. He was the fifth person to be murdered in the province this year. A man was killed in Londonderry by republicans in February, then in March two soldiers and a police officer were shot dead in Co Antrim and Co Armagh by republican dissidents.

And over the years the town of Coleraine has provided an example of a place which – although not generally regarded as a violent hotspot – still experiences sectarian flare-ups with lethal consequences.

In 1997 an off-duty Protestant police officer was beaten and kicked to death in the street by a loyalist mob as he left a public house in the nearby town of Ballymoney. The mob objected to his involvement in policing marching disputes. In the following year three Catholic schoolboys named Quinn, the oldest of whom was 10, died in a fire when loyalists petrol-bombed a house in the town, again during parading controversies

The courts have just dealt with the case of Michael McIlveen, a 15-year-old Catholic schoolboy who was beaten to death in 2006 in the neighbouring Ballymena by a group of Protestant youths who chased and cornered him. And there are many more events which do not result in death. In Ballymena, for example, police recorded 133 sectarian offences in a 12-month period, 53 per cent of them directed against Catholics and 43 per cent against Protestants.

The cities of Belfast and Londonderry have an even higher level of such incidents. As these figures indicate, the ending of the major paramilitary campaigns has greatly reduced the death toll but have not meant an end to killings.

The peace process has obviously not eliminated what has been called the background static of sub-lethal violence.

Such incidents tend to rise during the loyalist marching season, when more than 2,000 parades are staged all over Northern Ireland. This is now looming, and will reach a peak in July.

The authorities are now urgently reassessing the permission which had been granted for a loyalist parade close to the home of Kevin McDaid. It is scheduled to take place on Friday night, with 2,000 marchers and 40 bands due to take part.

A spokesman for the Parades Commission said: "There is clearly now a very different set of circumstances. Because of that we will be reviewing it and as part of that we expect to hear from all shades of opinion."

The Old Firm: How Northern Ireland is divided by football

* Old Firm games have long served as a spark for sectarian violence in Belfast. In April last year, a 32-year-old man was stabbed outside a pub in a largely nationalist area of Belfast when a gang of approximately 40 youths chanting far-right slogans went on the rampage.

* In 2005, 18 police officers were injured when fans clashed in North Belfast after Rangers clinched the Scottish Premier League title.

* In the same year, the ferry company Stena Line banned Rangers fans after violence flared between the two sets of fans as they sailed back to Belfast.

* More than 800 people were involved in clashes in Belfast when Celtic and Rangers met in the 2002 Scottish Cup Final. Twenty-eight police officers and 10 civilians were hurt as shots were fired at police.