The enduring scar of sectarianism

A summer of hate in Northern Ireland has seen scores of families – Protestant and Catholic – driven out of their homes by intimidation. David McKittrick reports
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The Independent Online

It was five in the morning," said Colette Cassidy. "They were like madmen. There were 14 or 15 of them. They were dancing on top of the car, shouting and trying to kick the windscreen in."

Mrs Cassidy is a Catholic grandmother, described by locals as a "totally inoffensive" person, who has the misfortune to live near a sectarian flashpoint in Ardoyne in north Belfast.

"If the police hadn't arrived, they would have tried to get into someone's house," she said, adding that her home and car have repeatedly come under attack in the past eight years. "We have lost count of how many attacks there have been," she said.

For years she resolved to brave it out against marauding loyalists. "I said: 'They're not putting me out of my house.' But it's gone on that long and it's constant. I'm not going to have the grandchildren growing up with it."

Mrs Cassidy has now contacted the authorities and has asked to be re-housed – just one of a growing number of Catholics and Protestants for whom the "peace" in the "peace process" has proved elusive.

Nearly three years on from a final political settlement in Northern Ireland, emergency evacuations of families under intimidation are on the rise. A summer of high tension has seen hundreds of attacks on both Catholic and Protestant individuals and premises, including churches, being reported to police.

There have been 65 emergency re-housing cases in the five months since April; the total for the whole of last year was 100. These include families subjected to petrol-bomb and stoning attacks on their homes.

A total of 1,500 sectarian attacks – an average of four a day – were recorded in the past year, almost exactly the same as in the previous 12 months. An example of how life can be affected when a family comes under attack was given by a Protestant man living in the Co Antrim village of Rasharkin, where what are described as "Catholic hoods" have been active. The village has been the centre of controversy over a loyalist marching dispute which gave rise to many incidents in recent months.

He said: "My wife is devastated. This last few months she has been absolutely tortured. Her car's been pelted with eggs and she's been given a lot of verbal abuse. A lot of my own family have had to move out because of sectarianism.

"I'm not blaming the Catholic community for this. I'm blaming the republican element who are prepared to stop at nothing to try to get rid of whatever Protestant community there is left in this village."

Protestant gangs have meanwhile been active in the Co Londonderry village of Garvagh, where in one night, 20 windows were broken at Catholic-owned businesses, including a hotel, a bar, a butcher's shop and a café. Billy Leonard, a local Sinn Fein councillor, said the concerns would not be put out of business by "thugs", adding: "I spoke to one of the business people who said that they would be determined to keep going, that they serve a mixed clientele and they have a mixed workforce."

Although the number of deaths in Northern Ireland has gone down sharply, sectarian hate crimes remain common, despite the major republican and loyalist paramilitary groups virtually ceasing their activities. Groups of youths, both Protestant and Catholic, are still on the rampage and incidents have this year taken place in every one of Northern Ireland's 26 council areas.

They range from serious assaults to the petrol-bombing of homes and premises identified with either the Protestant or Catholic religion. Many incidents are associated with controversial parades and displays such as the flying of flags.

Sectarian incidents are also costly. In July, three days of rioting in the nationalist Ardoyne produced a major security operation which cost more than £400,000.

Last year, north Belfast, a traditionally deeply divided area, notched up 560 sectarian incidents, more than a third of those recorded in the whole of Northern Ireland. But there are growing problems in other areas which have experienced less trouble in the past. A striking example is in North Antrim and East Londonderry, where disputed marches have contributed to increased tensions.

In the town of Ballymoney, for example, incidents have almost trebled from 21 in 2007-08 to 59 last year, while in neighbouring Ballymena the number of attacks remains high at around 60 a year.

This general area has also seen a large number of attacks on property, including Orange halls and premises used by the Catholic community, where fires were started, walls were daubed with graffiti slogans, or bricks were thrown. Such events generally take place during the night, making it difficult to secure convictions.

Many believe a majority of incidents across Northern Ireland are the work of Protestant youths, although no official breakdown is available. Similarly, young loyalists are held responsible for most of the racially motivated attacks, which are now running at a rate of almost 1,000 a year. In June, 100 Romanian immigrants, including young children, fled Northern Ireland following a wave of attacks involving Protestant youths. But nationalists have also been active. The number of attacks on Orange halls has trebled to 15 this year compared with last year. Slogans scrawled on walls include "Kill the Huns", and references to the Queen.

In Coleraine, meanwhile, which was generally regarded as one of Northern Ireland's less troubled towns, attacks have almost doubled this year. One of these led to the death in May of Kevin McDaid, a 49-year-old Catholic father-of-four, who was killed in a street fight over the display of rival flags. Eleven men have been charged with offences including murder and attempted murder. Last week, a court was told that more than 20 people are under death threats following the murder. A prosecution lawyer said half those under threat were witnesses while the others included men suspected of involvement in the attack.

Much of Northern Ireland is almost completely at peace, but in some places, full-scale terrorism has been replaced by lower-level clashes.

The issue was highlighted by Sir Hugh Orde, the former Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who declared that intolerance was "embedded" in society and called for more integration between communities. He also gave warning that the official approach of planning a shared future "hardly seems to be on the agenda at all".

The Social Development Minister, Margaret Ritchie, is working on schemes to tackle sectarianism and is due to produce a paper focusing on shared housing, integrated education and community-building.

Public meetings to advocate these themes are planned, but the latest statistics suggest that violent sectarianism has deep roots which have so far not been dealt with by the peace process.

Duncan Morrow, the chief executive officer of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council, said: "The real problem we face now is the residue that's left in ordinary culture. There has been clear progress at the higher political level but there is still sharp evidence of sectarianism at local level.

"It is a deep-rooted problem and I believe there are many unreported incidents. While there may be in many areas a sense that violence is a thing of the past, there are pockets across this society which have a sense that very little has changed at the level of day-to-day experience."