Red, white and blue terror in the night

Loyalist paint bomb attacks on Catholic homes are criminally, not politically, inspired writes David McKittrick
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The Independent Online

Margaret Walsh was sitting with her husband and two of her five children on Wednesday night, watching an Elvis film on television, when they heard the bangs. Her husband jumped up and, heedless of her warnings, ran out to find the front of their house covered in paint.

Margaret Walsh was sitting with her husband and two of her five children on Wednesday night, watching an Elvis film on television, when they heard the bangs. Her husband jumped up and, heedless of her warnings, ran out to find the front of their house covered in paint.

The paint bombs which loyalist groups have taken to using could hardly be simpler, gloss paint poured into glass bottles. Although they are hardly lethal weapons, they do convey powerful messages of hatred and menace.

Although the paramilitary guns are largely silent, loyalists last week used these lesser weapons to great effect against Catholics in vulnerable areas, such as the border between the Catholic Falls, where the Walshes live, and the Protestant Shankill. So busy were they last weekend that on Monday the housing authorities were contacted by 36 families who needed emergency accommodation. Since Monday a further 21 have decided to flee.

There are scores more like the Walshes, who have come under attack but decided to persevere, not to move out. There have been some cases of attacks by Catholic youths on Protestant homes but for the most part the intimidation comes from loyalists.

Such attacks can leave scars. Mrs Walsh said of her 12-year-old daughter: "Helen was petrified, she thought the windows were coming in. She was very upset. She couldn't cope with it, she kept asking why they were doing it to us when we'd never done any harm."

Loyalists have also targeted what are sometimes called "rotten Prods". One Protestant family has been intimidated out of a Protestant area because they sent their children to a religiously integrated school.

Attacks like these are familiar in Belfast, for each year the summer brings such outbreaks of sectarianism. Last year was relatively quiet, but the three years before that were worse. This time, there is a new dimension, for a turf war has broken out in the loyalist paramilitary undergrowth. The Ulster Freedom Fighters are flexing their muscles, not for political motives but because of gangland racketeering centred on the drug trade. Police say there have been scores of drug arrests in the Shankill Road area, the UFF's heartland. But as the drugs connection has become more obvious the UFF has tried to salvage something of its image by posing as defenders of the Protestant working class.

Thus, in addition to the usual sectarian motive, there is the UFF hope that the paint-bomb attacks will function as a diversionary tactic. This crude ruse has fooled almost no one.

"This didn't happen because of politics," Mrs Walsh said. "It's a thug element who will use whatever excuse they can. They use politics as a cloak. It's a turf war, it's about control and manipulating people and having people living in fear of them."

Just about everyone agrees with her. Everyone also knows the Walshes present no threat to anyone: Margaret Walsh is a Belfast councillor, a peaceful nationalist representing the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party. The drug-dealing paramilitary bosses who despatched the paint-bombers persist however in pretending their motives are political.

The paint bombs which struck the Walsh home were coloured red, white and blue, illustrating the continuing truth that, as the writer Samuel Johnson said in 1775, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

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