25 June 2005


Catholics burned out

Angelique Chrisafis, Ireland correspondent
Saturday June 25, 2005
The Guardian

In the dead of night on the smart north Belfast cul-de-sac, a river of burning oil had scorched everything in its wake. The roof of one house had caved in and a children's playhouse, which four children had slept in a few days earlier, was a burnt-out shell.

If they had been there at 1am, when arsonists set an oil tank alight, causing two more to explode and sending a fireball through the edge of the estate, they would have been burned alive like their pet rabbit.

"We can't stay here now," said the children's father, Peter McCall, as the smell of smoke hung in the air. The McCalls are now abandoning this middle-class idyll of the new Northern Ireland.

The image of parents waking to the crackle of burning, wrenching children from their beds and throwing them over fences to safety is a throwback to the Troubles. Attacks still occur in working-class areas and on the homes of migrant workers. But in a leafy new mixed development of Catholics and Protestants, where most children attend the local integrated school, it is not supposed to happen.

When a group of youths told Catholic children from the estate "You are invading our territory and your houses are going to burn tonight", no one took it seriously.

Police are investigating a motive for Monday's attack in Old Throne Park. Sinn Féin said it was attempted murder, a sectarian act by loyalists to stoke tensions during the marching season, which began with violence last weekend and was due to continue with the contentious Whiterock parade in Belfast tonight before it was suspended. This could mark the start of a fraught summer, the party warned.

When a Catholic church was burnt by arsonists in Portadown this week, a local priest appealed for no revenge attacks.

The first major parade of the Protestant marching season ended in chaos last weekend after Catholic demonstrators threw bottles and bricks and clashed with police after the return leg of the Orange Order's Tour of the North passed the nationalist Ardoyne shops in north Belfast.

This rundown and embittered interface between Protestant and Catholic communities who live behind dividing "peace walls" is a flash point of tension every year. This area of north Belfast suffered the most murders of the Troubles and the loyalist protests outside Holy Cross school four years ago still play strongly in people's minds.

Northern Ireland's chief constable, Hugh Orde, said the disturbances, in which 18 police officers and 11 others were injured, should serve as a "wake-up call" for the marching season.

Father Aidan Troy, the priest who led Catholic children to school during the Holy Cross dispute, warned that tension had descended to "the subhuman" and if the Irish or British governments did not intervene soon, someone could be killed.

Various groups are working to stop the rioting at Ardoyne sparking further violence in west Belfast tonight.

But politicians on both sides are unhappy. The Democratic Unionist party's Nigel Dodds described the violence at the parade in Ardoyne as "an outrageous, unprovoked and vicious attack by republicans" which "Sinn Féin/IRA allowed to happen".

In March, at the height of the Robert McCartney crisis, the moderate nationalist SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, warned that Sinn Féin and the IRA might orchestrate violence during the marching season so they could then try to claim advantage by calming tensions on the streets.

He said this was a way of "reminding people that there are some things that the IRA are needed for".

Last year, 99% of parades were peaceful. In the whole marching season, there was only an hour and a half of extreme violence - crowds turned on the army and police in Ardoyne on July 12, the pinnacle of the season when the Orange Order commemorates the Protestant William of Orange's victory over the Catholic James II at the battle of the Boyne.

Asked this week if Sinn Féin was turning violence "on and off" for its own advantage, the party's justice spokesman, Gerry Kelly, said this was a "strange logic". He said the footage of the recent Ardoyne rioting had shown it had been out of control and community leaders had tried to stop it.

But he warned that tensions were high in north Belfast, worsened by the government's decision this week to send a senior republican released under the Good Friday agreement back to jail. Sean Kelly was convicted of the IRA's Shankill Road fish shop bombing in 1993 in which nine Protestants and one of the bombers died.

It remains to be seen whether, amid the mood of renewed distrust, the IRA will produce its awaited statement announcing it is to abandon guns for politics.

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