Sunday Business Post, May 14, 2006

Where peace has made no progress

Sunday, May 14, 2006 - By Colm Heatley

A few yards into Ballymena town centre, the loyalist paramilitary banners that hang from almost every lamppost let the casual visitor know exactly who controls the town.

Most of the kerbstones are painted red, white and blue.

Union Jacks flutter from bedroom windows. Pictures of King Billy and masked loyalist gunmen stare down from the gable walls of terraced houses.

It was underneath one of these flags that 15-year-old Catholic Michael McIlveen was kicked to death last week.

He was on his way home from the local cinema - where he had met Protestant friends - when he was set upon by a loyalist gang wielding baseball bats and knives.

He struggled home after the beating, but collapsed and lapsed into a coma a few hours later. Last Monday, he died.

Last Thursday, five young Protestants were charged with his murder.

The front garden of the family home was turned into a temporary shrine for the sports-mad teenager. Celtic jerseys and the colours of his local hurling team took pride of place as a steady procession of mourners streamed in and out of the house.

They all shared one sentiment - that this was a tragedy waiting to happen. Since Christmas, there has been an upsurge in sectarian attacks in Ballymena, nearly all against Catholics.

Ballymena has always had an unenviable legacy of sectarianism.

In the late 1990s, when the Good Friday Agreement held out hope of progress, Catholic Mass-goers at Harryville Church in the town were pelted with urine-filled balloons by loyalist protesters every week.

Today, the town is festooned with loyalist flags, a carnival of reaction against political progress.

The town centre, a supposedly neutral area, has UDA and UVF emblems almost everywhere.

UDA flags hang from lampposts outside Harryville Church, and just a few feet away hangs a UDA mural ‘‘remembering with pride’’ the organisation’s members - whose targets, of course, were Catholics just like those who attend Mass at Harryville.

Most of Ballymena is a no-go area for nationalists. The UDA, which many believe is behind the orchestrated attacks, has gone from strength-to-strength in the town, tightening its grip on the local heroin trade and recruiting loyalist youths into its ranks in unprecedented numbers.

So far, no significant political pressure has been placed on the group to disarm or to cease its activities.

Many shopping centres, bars, leisure centres, cinemas and pizza parlours are out of bounds for a fifth of Ballymena’s citizens, because those businesses are all located in loyalist areas.

Older nationalists can drink only in bars in William Street, ‘‘but you’d never dream of walking home’’, said one patron of a pub in the street.

This is life for Ballymena’s nationalists, more than eight years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed and almost 12 years since the first IRA ceasefire.

For young nationalists, the only venue which is safe is the small and dingy Trick Shot snooker hall, situated on the outskirts of the town centre.

They are corralled into two housing estates at the north end of the town, Dunclug – where Michael McIlveen lived - and the tiny Fisherwick estate, whose residents only had central heating put into their houses two years ago.

Dunclug is a typical council housing estate with a smattering of greenery at the top end of it. Locals playing hurling have to do it on the tiny basketball court, the hoops acting as goals.

When the Troubles began, most Catholics lived on the south side of the town, but sectarian intimidation forced them to move. Ironically, it is only in these two mainly nationalist estates that Protestants and Catholics mix openly.

Protestant teenagers, who walk around wearing Rangers jerseys, are counted as friends by the local Catholics. Last week, some of the Rangers jerseys were emblazoned with the words ‘‘Mickey Bo’’, McIlveen’s nickname, as a mark of respect.

In another twist, one of those charged with the murder has a Catholic mother, and has close relatives who live near the McIlveens.

Life for Dunclug’s younger nationalist residents is punctuated by sectarian attacks and pervaded with a sense of despair, growing anger and resentment at their impotence in the face of sustained attacks.

In recent months, the attacks have become more organised, vicious and bold. Since January, locals say that loyalists have been out cruising in cars, armed with baseball bats and knives, on the prowl for nationalists, a claim supported by Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the victims of these midnight ‘sorties’.

The premeditated nature of these attacks is a chilling echo of the darkest days of the Troubles and Lenny Murphy’s Shankill Butchers gang, which killed more than a dozen Catholics.

Barry McGill is 18 years old, and was a close friend of McIlveen. Three weeks ago, he was sitting near his home in Dunclug when a car full of loyalists pulled up. They held him down and tried to carve a Union Jack on his stomach with a kitchen knife.

‘‘I was just minding my own business when it happened,” he said. ‘‘They came in and did it for nothing. They are bad bastards who wanted to get any Catholic they could. We are second-class citizens here - that’s all.”

No one has been charged with the attack and, like most young nationalists, McGill won’t venture into the town anymore unless he has a crowd with him.

But that, in turn, leads to PSNI attention and unwanted ‘‘stop and search’’ procedures, which nationalists complain are meted out unfairly and disproportionately.

‘‘How come I can’t walk into the town without being searched but the loyalists can saunter around with baseball bats and knives?” asks McGill.

The case of Robert Hamill, a Catholic man kicked to death by loyalists in front of an RUC Landrover in Portadown in May 1997, still plays on the minds of nationalists in Ballymena, who view their situation as similar to that of nationalists in Portadown during that time.

On Easter Saturday, another young nationalist from the Dunclug estate was beaten in a sectarian attack in the town’s Tower shopping centre. Kirk McCaughren, 20, was stabbed and punched and was left with a punctured lung in the daylight attack.

The police later charged him with causing an affray, but didn’t charge any of his dozen or so attackers. McIlveen’s mother Gina, meanwhile, was punched in the face in the same shopping centre at Christmas.

Again, loyalists were responsible.

At least three Catholic families have been forced from their homes in Ballymena because of sectarian intimidation.

The frequency of attacks has also meant that many jobs in Ballymena are off limits to young nationalist men and women, who fear that loyalists would wait until closing time and attack them.

In the Dunclug and Fisherwick estates, unemployment is high, even though Ballymena is one of the most prosperous towns in the north. Surprisingly, despite the attacks, there is little talk of revenge.

‘‘If a Catholic goes out and stabs a Protestant teenager, then people will say we are as bad as them,” said McGill.

However, a friend of his admits that McIlveen’s murder ‘‘has left me bitter’’.

The recent sectarian beatings come after a sustained wave of attacks on Catholic homes in Ballymena and the nearby village of Ahoghill last summer.

In Ahoghill, just five miles from the centre of Ballymena, loyalists petrol-bombed the homes of the last remaining nationalists in the village.

Families who had lived there for generations fled. The PSNI was criticised for its response - it gave fire-blankets to the nationalists who chose to stay on.

In response to such intimidation, young nationalists have ‘‘rebelled’’ by wearing Celtic shirts and hanging up tricolours in their estates.

Declan O’Loan, a local SDLP councillor and husband of the Police Ombudsman, said that, in years gone by, Catholics were always the primary targets of attack, but that over the past five years there had been less inclination to suffer in silence.

‘‘In the past, Catholics seemed almost to accept their fate and accept the intimidation, but over the past five years there has been a rising self-confidence and young people in particular don’t want to sit back,” he said. ‘‘They are more assertive than past generations.”

That assertiveness, combined with a growing Catholic population, has infuriated Ballymena’s loyalists who, through sectarian attacks, are determined to maintain their status in the town.

The rise of the Sinn Fein vote in Ballymena and surrounding areas has also led to a sustained assault on the nationalist community.

Paddy, a local community worker in whom many of the young people of the area confide, said the situation meant that, for most young Catholics, life experience doesn’t exist outside Dunclug housing estate.

‘‘They can’t go into the town and they don’t have any resources, so they end up drinking out of boredom,” he said.

‘‘We have all the difficulties of every other working-class area, plus the problems of a loyalist town that tells Catholics they can’t leave their estate or they’ll be beaten up.

‘‘For a lot of these kids, there is nothing to do, and the future doesn’t look too rosy for them.”

Inside the estates there are no facilities to occupy young people, and a number of boarded-up houses are the former dwellings of local heroin dealers chased out by Dunclug’s residents.

For nationalists in Ballymena, the peace process has delivered no real change; if anything, they feel that their situation has deteriorated over the past ten years.

In the Fisherwick estate, a tiny nationalist enclave even farther from Ballymena town centre, dissident republicans have had some success in recruiting local young people.

Last year, five young people from the estate were arrested over their alleged involvement in a fire-bombing campaign in the north Antrim area. However, support for dissident republicans is still extremely small.

Since the death of McIlveen, there has been something of an outpouring of cross-community grief in Ballymena. Local Protestants left flowers and sympathy cards at the spot where he was beaten to death.

However, the street violence being perpetrated against nationalists in Ballymena is played out against a backdrop of political intolerance and religious fundamentalism, which is frequently expressed by the town’s DUP politicians.

The council insists on flying the Union Jack 365 days a year.

Party members, including Ian Paisley Jr, attended the Harryville Church protests, while his father is well-known for his firebrand pro-union speeches.

However, the McIlveen family has been generous in its praise of Ian Paisley, who didn’t visit the house but prayed with them over the phone. He has been invited to attend the funeral.

McIlveen’s murder has been unusual mainly for the attention it has attracted. When another Catholic teenager was stabbed to death by loyalists in north Belfast last year, barely a ripple was created.

Catholics in Ballymena feel that unless radical moves are taken to ensure the loyalist attacks are brought to an end, another innocent life will be lost.

Within a fortnight, the Orange marches will begin in earnest and sectarian tensions will be ratcheted up.

Providing security for nationalists in Ballymena will be a key test for both the PSNI and unionist politicians if a new era is to be created in the North.