Ulster peace in flames: 48 churches, 71 schools put to the torch in 16 months

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In the early hours yesterday Seamus Armstrong, who last year retired after 31 years as a fire officer, found himself in a graveyard with his two sons, racing up a hill towards his place of worship.

When they reached it the little church looked quite normal from the outside, but inside was a different story. Two major fires had been started, the main one on the altar. They had burnt themselves out when the Armstrongs arrived, but the interior of the church was ruined.

Early yesterday, standing with other shattered, distressed parishioners in the car park in an atmosphere of weary helplessness, Seamus Armstrong related what happened.

"The housekeeper rang our house at about 25 to one and I and my two sons came over. We were just making our way in when the fire brigade arrived," he said.

"The church was that airtight that it was completely burnt out, but the heat in it was colossal.

"It's completely gutted - pews, ceiling, the whole lot, all singed and scorched, heat and smoke damaged. The lead on most of the new windows melted. They're only in a year - the nameplates of the donors were just put up there on Holy Saturday."

St Peter's Catholic church at Stoneyford, Co Antrim, had just joined the long list of lost buildings that have fallen victim to sectarian arson. The tradition of torching "the other side's" premises goes back decades, but is now reaching new peaks.

Since the beginning of last year, according to Royal Ulster Constabulary statistics, there have been fire attacks on 48 places of worship, 71 schools and 44 halls. Most of the targets have been Catholic premises. The rate of attacks is running at around 10 a month - so many that the fire brigade is issuing special leaflets advising churches on how to cope.

Seamus Armstrong described how the loyalist arsonists had gone about their business. He said: "Somebody dropped them off on the road, and they went up through the graveyard. It was drizzling and you could see the footprints. They broke in through the door with a jemmy-bar, went up to the altar, sprayed it with a fire accelerant and lit it. They left four plastic containers, two of them in the altar, which melted. They started another fire near the door, then they closed the door and locked it again."

The present church was built in the 1970s, but a Catholic church has stood on the site for 200 years. Nearby gravestones date as far back as 1795. The site now holds the church, a hall and a primary school. The hall has been attacked only once, but the school was blown up in the 1970s. It now consists of a series of mobile classrooms, every window covered with stout steel grilles, because the mobiles have themselves been attacked three times in the last five years.

Michael McGarrity, chairman of the parish council, stood in the school and said: "It makes me sad, sad. It's fear, people just have fear. I think as individuals we all have to try to do something, large or small, to foster better community relations. You have to try to do something, you have to keep on going, keep on trying, but it's very difficult to know what to do."

The headmistress, determinedly cheerful, had her classroom of five- year-olds sing a cheerful song for him. Their open smiling faces, free of worry and fear, showed that they have been well protected from the sectarian storms raging through Stoneyford, and so many other parts of Northern Ireland.