Sinn Féin News, May 19, 2006
Ballymena ethos fuels sectarianism
Over 10,000 Catholics live within Ballymena, one fifth of the town's
population but any kind of civic profile is deemed "provocative" in this DUP
stronghold. "The ethos isn't simply predominantly unionist but exclusively
unionist," says Sinn Féin North Antrim MLA Philip McGuigan.
Public spaces and civic buildings are festooned with unionist symbols inside
and never far from unionist murals and flags outside. Murals of King Billy
celebrate historical victory over Catholic King James, while unionist
paramilitary paintings provide a contemporary focus for this cult of
"The DUP-dominated borough council insists on flying the union flag 365 days
a year. Behind the mayor's chair in the council's debating chamber is a
portrait of the British Queen, draped with both the Union and 'Ulster'
flags," says McGuigan.
Within the council chamber nationalist representatives are treated with open
hostility and noisy contempt. Any attempt by the sole Sinn Féin councillor,
Monica Digney, to address the floor is greeted with derision. "When Monica
speaks unionist councillors drum their fists on the table to drown out her
contribution," says McGuigan. The two SDLP councillors are treated only
marginally better. "It's within this context that within the council
chambers last month Monica was threatened by a member of the public," says
Ongoing sectarian intimidation has effectively closed off swathes of the
town centre to Catholic residents. To wear a GAA shirt is to court trouble,
to use an Irish name or a name deemed more popular amongst Catholics is to
risk attracting hostility.
A mother whose daughter was repeatedly subjected to sectarian abuse and
attack to and from school was advised to encourage her child to "keep her
head down" and her "eyes averted" as if merely meeting someone's gaze while
wearing a Catholic school uniform was provocative.
"Catholics in Ballymena aren't simply treated like second-class citizens,
it's much worse than that, they're non citizens. Their civic presence cannot
be acknowledged let alone respected or celebrated. In Ballymena there are
those who believe Catholics should be neither seen nor heard," says McGuigan.
Last week a 15-year-old Catholic teenager, Michael McIlveen was savagely
beaten and kicked to death by a sectarian gang who took turns to jump on the
schoolboy's head. The killing was the culmination of months of sectarian
attacks including attacks on Catholic churches, schools and homes.
"It's simply not good enough for the DUP to condemn the murder of Michael
McIlveen while refusing to acknowledge the context within which the killing
took place," says McGuigan.
"It's the kind of context that allows, within days of this brutal sectarian
killing, DUP council leader Roy Gillespie to publicly consign the teenage
victim to eternal damnation," says McGuigan.
Michael McIlveen would not go to heaven, Gillespie told the media, because
he was a Catholic. "The Pope is the Antichrist and is the head of the
Catholic Church which is not a true church or faith," said Gillespie. If
Catholics did not repent before they died they "will not get into heaven",
"As a Catholic Michael McIlveen won't get into heaven unless he's been
saved. If he did not repent before he died he will not get into heaven.
Catholics are not acceptable in heaven," said Gillespie.
DUP leader Ian Paisley's initial response was to claim "republican
provocation" in relation to the killing, citing a couple of Tricolours
flying in the predominantly Catholic Dunclug estate and a proposed
commemoration in the outlying Catholic village of Portglenone.
Earlier in the month DUP Councillor William Wilkinson demanded "official
action" after a number of posters commemorating the 1981 Hunger strikers
appeared in the village. Wilkinson demanded a multi-agency approach to
tackle this "offensive and unacceptable" display. He later urged unionists
to "register their disgust".
"Fundamentalist religious notions of sectarian exclusion which view
Catholics as unacceptable, even in the eyes of God, and extremist political
notions that identify nationalists as the enemy within and republicans as
the political equivalence to the Anti Christ, create a context within which
attacks on Catholics and their property are inevitable," says McGuigan.
The Sinn Féin MLA cites unionist intransigence during the peace process as a
significant factor. "It's a failure of vision and leadership. Intransigence
within political unionism is condemning unionist communities to the
discredited strategies of the past," says McGuigan.
In Ballymena, the siege mentality of the DUP has swelled the ranks of
unionist paramilitaries. The UDA has gone from strength to strength in the
town recruiting young people into its ranks and deploying them at the
cutting edge of their sectarian campaign of violent intimidation.
"In recent months gangs of loyalists have been roaming the streets, on foot
and in cars, armed with baseball bats and knives, on the prowl for potential
victims," says McGuigan.
Three weeks ago 18-year-old Barry McGill was trapped when an armed gang
pulled up beside him in a car. They held him down while attempting to carve
a union jack on his stomach with a knife.
Two weeks ago 20-year-old Kirk McCaughren was stabbed while shopping in the
town centre on a Saturday afternoon. He suffered a collapsed lung from the
wound and narrowly escaped with his life.
Last week Michael McIlveen died after a brutal beating by a gang that chased
the 15-year-old for over a mile before cornering him in a car park.
Yet despite the fact that young Catholics have become the UDA's primary
target, they have pointedly refused to become involved in the kind of
reciprocal, tit-for-tat response so beloved of the media.
Significantly in the two nationalist housing estates in the north of the
town, the only place in Ballymena where the politics of the DUP and the
violence of the UDA don't hold sway, young Catholics and Protestants openly
Recent footage at the scene of the McIlveen killing and outside his family's
home have shown young people celebrating their cultural differences by
wearing Celtic and Ranger football shirts but in solidarity with each other.
Some of the Rangers jerseys were emblazoned with "Mickey Bo" as a tribute to
the dead boy.
"It's time the DUP faced up to its responsibilities and started to provide
the kind of political leadership within unionism that allows us all to move
forward," said McGuigan.