Murder of Catholic boy, 15, reveals a Northern Ireland divided as ever

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The sectarianism which - peace process or no peace process - never fully goes away in Northern Ireland has boiled up to claim another life with the killing of a teenager in a gang attack. The 15-year-old Catholic was beaten and kicked to death in the Co Antrim town of Ballymena - known as the buckle on Ulster's bible belt because of its hardline Protestantism.

Michael McIlveen had bought a pizza just after midnight on Sunday when a loyalist gang spotted him and attacked him with their boots and a baseball bat.

He managed to stagger home but collapsed and was kept alive on a life-support machine until Monday night, when he died surrounded by his family.

An uncle said: "When gangs on both sides roam about this is the result. He was a quiet wee teenager. His mother is devastated. Now he is dead. It is such a waste." Five people are being questioned by police.

The killing provoked criticism which was unusually widespread and unusually heartfelt. Northern Ireland's fitful peace has seen a steady reduction in the once high death toll, with only three fatalities so far this year. But the fall in the killing rate means that individual murders often receive particular attention, generating widespread disappointment that the death toll has not ceased altogether.

Ballymena, a largely Protestant town, saw few killings over the course of the Troubles but nonetheless maintained a reputation for sectarianism. Several years ago a Catholic church was rowdily picketed during its masses in a bitter and long-running saga.

Last year brought a spate of attacks on Catholic homes and premises, with churches splashed with paint and daubed with obscene sectarian slogans.

In recent times a small but assertive republican element has made its presence felt in the town, sometimes clashing with loyalists who are members of illegal groups or on the fringes of paramilitary outfits. In a recent court case details were given of a violent incident in which gangs of youths from both sections of the community were "roaming around" engaging in a series of clashes that resulted in assaults and a stabbing.

At the same time clergy and other local figures have been active in initiatives behind the scenes, producing an agreement to remove some provocative paintings.

A cross-community representative, Jayne Dunlop, described Michael's killing as barbaric and vicious."He didn't stand a chance," she said. "He was outnumbered by a bunch of cowardly thugs. What does this say about the state of Ballymena? The town seems to be more divided now than ever and what's the point?"

Kate Magee, the principal at Michael's school, St Patrick's College, said: "We feel very much his loss. We are supporting one another. It is very much a whole community effort to try to support the young people." At the spot where he died young people held vigils.

The local MP, the Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, declared: "I would call on all sides to pull back from the brink before tragedy is multiplied by catastrophe. As we move towards the marching season I would appeal for calm. Any reprisal or upping the ante would serve no purpose other than to make matters worse."

The Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain, said it was a "sickening sectarian attack" which dragged Northern Ireland "back to the dark days of the past".

The shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, David Lidington, added: "Such naked sectarianism and savagery can have no place in any civilised society. It must be rooted out by the whole community."