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
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
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
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
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
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
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
‘‘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
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
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
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
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
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.