26 August 2005

Joe Nawaz visits both sides of the Short Strand interface following a weekend of violence


With just a wall physically dividing the residents of Short Strand and Cluan Place, the weekend’s violence - which culminated in a pipe bomb being found outside a family home - also demonstrated the equally visible sectarian division that still exists in the troubled area.

The loyalist mob that congregated in Cluan Place on Saturday night, apparently inspired by that afternoon’s Old Firm victory for Rangers, launched an orgy of violence, taking aim at the nationalist homes just yards from where they were gathered.

For the people of Short Strand, the bombardment of golf balls and bottles took on a more sinister and potentially more deadly turn with the lobbing of pipe bombs and even gun shots being fired from over the peaceline.

Scenes reminiscent of the summer of 2002, when loyalists effectively laid siege to the nationalist enclave, appear to have been temporarily averted thanks to frantic telephone negotiations between community activists on both sides of the interface.

But with tensions at an all time high, the South Belfast News took to the streets of the Short Strand and Cluan Place to find that residents were not optimistic about the future.

In a rare moment of general consensus, the PSNI united most people in fury at their alleged inactivity or unwillingness to act while missiles rained down onto family homes near the interface.

Sinéad Rooney lives in the shadow of the wall that divides her Clandeboye Gardens home from loyalist Cluan Place. She said that tensions had been building up for the past month in the area and that residents had been bracing themselves for an escalation.

“For the past three to four weeks, we’ve been having things chucked over. Things like golf balls and stones were coming over maybe two or three times a day so we were expecting something bigger at some point.

“I was out on Saturday evening and when I came back home, it was like Beirut. The place was devastated,” she said.

“The tension in our area was unbelievable, people were terrified. I had children and a grandchild in the house and I am furious that my family’s safety is put at risk like this.”

Sinéad also attacked the PSNI’s role during the weekend’s trouble.
“Quite simply, they’re not doing their job. How can they sit by and allow our community to be bombarded in this way? All it would have taken was one jeep in Cluan Place and the mob would have been dispersed.”

Sinéad was unaware that there was, in fact, a PSNI jeep parked in Cluan Place on the night in question.

Tommy Morrow, a neighbour of Sinéad, came home around 10.30pm to find that “all hell had broke loose”.

“There was a crowd around the wall, I could see all the smashed glass and bottles flying over.

“I know that there was an agreement after phone call negotiations, for the ones over the wall to stop for about half an hour. Things went quiet for a bit, then all of a sudden, we could hear five gun shots from Cluan Place followed by about 400 bottles all at once – it was raining glass down all over us. Then they threw a pipe bomb, which landed in my neighbour’s garden.”

Mr Morrow said that it took Army Technical Officers up to four hours to arrive on the scene to deal with the nine-inch device.

“We were waiting half the night for them to arrive and the police seemed to do absolutely nothing as well.”

Mr Morrow added that residents in Cluan Place were just as much victims as their Short Strand counterparts.

“I feel for them. They’re just ordinary people like us who want to get on with their lives. They’ve been intimidated by loyalist thugs outside their area who take over and use it to attack us.”

Clandeboye Drive resident Peter Walsh mans a telephone hotline between Short Strand and Cluan Place representatives. He says that it was vital in preventing an escalation of the weekend’s violence.

“Things began to get a bit sinister over the past couple of weeks. Instead of the usual golf balls and bottles, we began to see things like threaded metal bars coming over the wall. This was obviously pre-meditated stuff and it was a bit of a worry,” said Peter.

“After heavy bombardment on Saturday, we brokered half an hour’s quiet over the phone. This was going well until all of a sudden a really heavy attack was launched. Tensions were so high it was just incredible. There was stuff coming back from this side, but I have to say that it was retalitory.”

Peter maintains that if it were not for the telephone network the situation would have escalated.

“It’s a vital means of communication between our two sides – they can try and calm their young people down and we can do the same.

“There’s about five or six loyalist factions in East Belfast and I know that the people on the telephones in Cluan Place are getting a lot of stick in their own community about it. But I think that in spite of the difficulties, it’s vitally important to keep the channels of communication open. We’ve made a conscious decision to stay with it.”

He added: “For years, we’ve lived in peaceful co-existence with our neighbours. People with their own agenda have come into the area and ruined that. I have every sympathy with the people in Cluan Place.”

In Cluan Place, residents were less comfortable speaking to the press. Everyone had something to say, but most were not prepared to go on record. The general feeling in the austere, flag laden cul-de-sac is that the media were “unfair” to loyalists.

A woman, with her daughter and grandchildren by her side said that residents in Cluan Place were left to deal with the aftermath of the weekend’s trouble themselves.

“Nobody came to help us. When it was all over, it was left to us to come out and clean the place up with our own hands – it looked like a bomb site.
“We had no choice – our children play on these streets and we have to clean it up for them.

“It’s not fair to keep them indoors because of this. Nobody mentions that in the news.”

Another elderly woman said that she was “sick of people going on about Short Strand”.

“It’s not all about them. You should have seen the state of Cluan Place the day after. It was a disgrace. I know there’s decent people on the other side but when you live here and have to face bottles and the like being hurled over it makes you angry to hear about them being ‘under siege’. That’s what we’ve felt for a long time.”

One person who was prepared to talk was resident William Hart, who mans the telephone ‘hotline’ between Short Strand and Cluan Place.

“We’d been getting attacked all day,” said William. “We saw kids from the Short Strand attacking cars on the link while the police stood by and watched.”

“This was going on for most of the day and then (UUP MLA) Michael Copeland turned up and warned us that he had a ‘feeling’ that something might kick off.”

William said that he tried to telephone his counterparts in the Short Strand when the trouble started to escalate.

“It was useless. Nobody answered all day. I ended up switching the phone off. What’s the point of having this connection if nobody speaks to you?”
William was also highly critical of police involvement and accused them of being “obstructive”.

“A resident was hit on the head with a bottle when he jumped on a child to protect it. We called an ambulance for him but when it came, the police, who were at the top of the street, refused to let it in.

“That was outrageous. Eventually the ambulance man ignored the police decision and came through. It leaves you with little faith in the PSNI.”

“I thought that we’d seen the last of this sort of thing three years ago. That’s why me and my family moved back to Cluan Place. I do know that we’re not to blame.”

He added: “I heard that the Short Strand ones kicked off because of the result in the Old Firm match. Perhaps they’re just sore losers, but it’s no reason to commit violence.”

Journalist:: Joe Nawaz

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