30 January 2006

Aftermath of killing fractured a once close-knit community

Newshound

(Bimpe Fatogun, Irish News)

A Republican outpost in the middle of loyalist east Belfast, the Short Strand's sense of community emerges from more than 80 years of vicious interface violence.

Dotted around the grounds of St Matthew's parish church, which serves the Short Strand residents, are little crosses no larger than five inches in height.

The black crosses, inserted into the tarmac on smooth white disks, represent parishioners killed during the parish's turbulent history.

The church's vulnerable position at the edge of the Short Strand close to the loyalist Newtownards Road has seen it come under attack at various times in the past.

As early as 1920 the church found itself under attack from a large mob, partly made up of workers from the nearby shipyard.

The church railings were breached and stones were hurled at the church itself and troops brought in to defend it.

Former Irish News journalist RPP Hayes recalled in Watching for Daybreak, a history of the parish: "I remember vividly the struggle to save St Matthew's church from armed fanatics at the outset.

"The fighting was fierce in the extreme. Anarchy prevailed in the east end, with soldiers entrenched in the church grounds, while youthful members of the congregation kept the mobs at bay at side avenues to the sacred quarters."

St Matthew's was also targeted on Sunday April 23 1922 when a bomb was thrown into its grounds as the congregation was entering the church for evening devotions.

Elizabeth McCabe, a woman in her early thirties, was killed and a member of the RIC was seriously injured.

On May 21 1922 the congregation was fired on as it left Mass, with one man wounded.

Summer 1970 marked the start of another turbulent period for the area with loyalists and residents clashing amid gunfire and petrol bombs.

British troops moved into St Matthew's Parochial Hall, making it the only Belfast parish where the military took up residence to defend a church.

St Matthew's became a focus for attacks with an arson attempt in July 14 1989 and another two months later.

It was again set on fire after a sectarian clash in Bryson Street in May 1993.

"All through that time the feeling in the area was that the IRA was protecting us," one resident said.

"For years the area has been surrounded by loyalist areas and has been attacked lots of times and the IRA has defended the area. Everyone has seen them very much as being saviours and protectors."

More recently violence sparked during the Orange Order's marching season has escalated into serious disturbances.

In 2001 and 2002 the area came under sustained attack amid accusations from both sides that the other was orchestrating the violence.

On one occasion St Matthews was attacked during a funeral.

However, according to people living in the Short Strand the Robert McCartney case has now caused internal tension.

One resident claimed: "For the last five, six, seven years the whole area has just gone downhill badly. There is no community spirit."

Another resident, speaking anonymously, said: "Everyone knows everyone else in the district and everyone knows who was involved in what happened," he said.

"These people are still walking along the streets and being involved in various other things. Basically they are a gang of bullies. They have been involved in a lot of skirmishes and fist-fights.

"For years teenage kids have been regularly threatened and when parents would have gone round to complain they would have been told the IRA did it."

He claimed people were too frightened to speak out.

The decision of Mr McCartney's five sisters and his fiancee to speak out against his killers and demand that they be brought to justice made headlines across the world.

"The majority of people I would say are fully behind the McCartneys," the resident said.

"The McCartneys went through a hard, hard time and a long time and in the end they couldn't take anymore of the constant harassment and reminder."

Patricia Johnston of the Short Strand Women's Group said there was no division in the area.

"This community stands behind the McCartney's in their fight for justice. I don't know if anybody can say who did it," she said.

Others in the area say they feel that the image of the community has been damaged by the fallout from the sisters' campaign.

Christy Keenan, a Sinn Féin activist and "republican of 35 years standing", said Mr McCartney's death shocked the whole community.

"He was a member of the community too and I would have called on him for help as quick as anyone else," he said.

"However, we are angry at the way his death has been used to demonise republicanism.

"As a republican I would be working towards getting the justice that the family deserve."

He was particularly angered by the sisters' account to Irish America last St Patrick's Day of an IRA which had turned away from its "romantic past" to gangsterism.

Despite these feelings of anger Mr Keenan insists there has been no split in the area.

"There are 2,500-odd people here. You are talking about a group of extended families. You are talking about a falling out between families and you know what that can be like. It can be very bitter," he said.

"But at the end of the day you can not say this community is fractured. This community has come through 30 years and it's going to still be here in another 30 years."

The resident who declined to be named disagrees, insisting that the continued existence of people known to be the killers in the area is placing it under enormous strain.

"People draw a distinction between these people and republicanism," he said.

"A lot of people in the area were republicans years ago. They would have served prison terms. They are proper republicans.

"A lot of community spirit has been lost going back for years because these people formed a Mafia gang. Now people are standing up to them but it's still not the same.

"To be honest, if I had the opportunity I would move out tomorrow."

January 29, 2006
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This article appeared first in the January 27, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

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