14 May 2006

Ballymena Catholics seen as second-class citizens


By Suzanne Breen
Sunday Tribune
May 14, 2006

Barry knows he was lucky. He lifts his Celtic shirt to show the knife wounds where the loyalist gang tried to carve a Union Jack on his chest. "They jumped me from behind as I walked to Dunclug.

"They punched me in the face and then they took out a Stanley knife. They were calling me a Fenian bastard as they beat me. I managed to get away. Catholics have to watch their backs in Ballymena every hour of the day. I was lucky to escape with only black eyes and scars. I could have ended up like Michael."

We're at the spot where Michael McIlveen, 15, was fatally beaten last weekend. "He was one of my best mates," says Barry, 18. "We'd some great times together. He wanted to join the Irish Army.

"All he ever talked about was getting out of here and heading down South when he left school." All day, young people arrive at the scene, leaving flowers and messages.

'Alright big lad. You're in a better place than any of us. Ryan'. 'A new beautiful angel. We'd so much fun. Michaela'. 'Sleep well, you deserve somewhere better than here. Aine.' 'I only ever talked to you once or twice but you were nice to me and lovely looking.'

Older people leave crucifixes and holy pictures. Teenagers bring teddy bears and Celtic jerseys. A girl stands by a row of red candles, replacing every one as it burns out. "I want to keep a warm glow here for Michael," she says.

A pensioner in a nearby house watches the makeshift shrine from her bedroom at night. "It's to make sure loyalists don't wreck it. The neighbours call me Miss Marple because I miss nothing."

"Even in death, you're not safe – that's how much they hate us," says a 26-year-old mother. "I called my wee lad Ruairi. Now, I'm kicking myself for giving him a Catholic name. It's too dangerous."

Some Catholics have 999 keyed into their mobile phones for when they're in certain parts of town at night. Few people want their names printed. "You're out of here tonight. I've to live here," says the young mother.

Catholics make up a fifth of Ballymena's population. Many see the town as a crucible of sectarianism. The vast majority live in North Ballymena but the best shopping, social and recreational facilities – the cinema, leisure centre, and Superbowl – are in the Protestant south of town.

"Everyday activities, like shopping, carry huge risks," says Deirdre. Last year, she was heavily pregnant when threatened by a known UDA man in the Tower Centre. "He called me a Fenian bastard, right in the middle of the shopping centre, and he went to hit me.

"I lifted my two-year-old in front of me to protect my stomach. Later, I received threats they'd kill my kids. I told the police but they're not interested."

Deirdre, who lives in the working-class Dunclug Estate, is a friend of the McIlveen's. She was godmother at the christening of Michael's niece a fortnight ago. "Michael was godfather. He was a bag of nerves because he wanted to get it right.

"He kept whispering to me 'what do we have to do now?'. He was very shy so I pretended he'd to make a speech at the end and he nearly died. We recorded the ceremony. Watching it breaks my heart. I never thought then that I'd be buying his wreath."

Black flags in the streets outside, erected for the hunger-strikers, now serve a double purpose. Real IRA graffiti adorns the gable walls. Moving Hearts' 'No time for love', blasts from a parked car: "Come on all you people who give to your sisters and brothers the will to fight on/They say you can used to this war, that doesn't mean that this war isn't on."

In a middle-class Catholic development, off the Doury Road, no republican music is playing. But there's just as much anger about the murder.

"I'm not bigoted, my father is a Protestant, but this is a Protestant town for a Protestant people and that'll never change," says Teresa as she drinks coffee in her beautiful, sun-lit kitchen. The family dog Lassie is digging a hole in the back garden.

"Michael McIlveen played netball out there with my son Darren. He was so quiet. Even if loyalists yelled abuse at him, he'd never answer back. Darren's been on diazepam since Michael's murder. Imagine – a 16-year-old boy on diazepam.

"I found my 15-year-old daughter crying in bed yesterday. She's too frightened to go to school. My sister's moving to England and she says I should do the same.

"I don't want to leave but it'll be worse when Darren's older and wants to go to pubs at night. My mother never slept a wink until my brothers came home on weekend nights. I don't want to go through that.

"Just say Darren starts seeing a Protestant girl? I wouldn't mind at all but it's dangerous when they visit Protestant areas." Teresa talks of an old school-friend, Michael Reid, who was at a house in the Protestant Harryville part of town.

He was beaten on the head with a saucepan, stabbed, and had the cord of a mobile phone charger pulled around his neck. He heard his assailants discuss ways of sawing up his body. He pretended to be dead and managed to escape. Last year, Neil White, 30, was convicted of Reid's attempted murder.

Cross-community dating means loyalists sometimes learn the mobile numbers of Catholic teenagers, says Teresa's friend Michelle: "A wee girl visiting Michael McIlveen in intensive care was texted: 'We didn't just kill one nationalist. We killed a bit of all the nationalists in Ballymena.'"

Michelle's brother, Stephen, 17, says it was dangerous before Michael's murder. On Easter Saturday Kirk McCaughern, 20, was stabbed during a confrontation in the Tower Centre. "The loyalist who did it was at an Orange parade two days later. As it passed the chapel, he danced and roared to show everybody he was proud of what he did."

Sean, a Sinn Féin member, says: "When my young fellow goes to the dentist in town, he takes off his St Patrick's school uniform because it identifies him as a Catholic.

"When my children go to the cinema, they ring me five minutes before they come out so I can pick them up immediately. Standing outside is too dangerous. The police don't protect us. Supt Terry Shevlin has ornamental elephants in his office. They're more use than his officers."

Ballymena elected its first Sinn Féin councillor, Monica Digney, last year. "Her treatment by some DUP councillors encourages sectarianism on the street," says Sean.

"When she tries to speak, some drum the tables to drown her out. They try to belittle her. The ceasefire and the peace process hasn't changed unionists here."

Sean says nationalists will be penned in by Orange marches every fortnight this summer: "You'd think King Billy was from Ballymena, the way they're always celebrating him."

In the living-room of his home on the Fisherwick Estate, Anthony Lee, 30, sits under pictures of Bobby Sands and Francis Hughes. He's one of five people facing charges of Real IRA membership and firebomb possession following arrests last year. He's pleading not guilty.

"Anti-Agreement republicanism here is growing. We grew up being told to keep our heads down but that's changing. When I was sixteen our family was told they were scum and should get out of Ballymena. We stayed. The days are gone when loyalists could come into our estates and take down Tricolours.

"You see ordinary Catholics starting to wear Celtic and GAA tops despite the risks. They won't accept being second-class citizens." His friend, Ryan Agnew, 26, says: "My father's in Sinn Féin but I think they're losing touch with the feeling on the ground.

"The peace process improved nothing. We're angry about Michael's murder but republicans would never do the same to a Protestant teenager. Our young people are putting up posters saying 'No more sectarian attacks'. Ballymena isn't like 'Gangs of New York' with both sides as bad as each other.

"Only one community is under siege. Catholic schools and churches here have suffered numerous attacks. The chapel at Harryville needs so much security protection it looks like a prison not a church."

John Dickey who runs the North Antrim Victims' Support Network says: "Ballymena Protestants are wrongly demonised and nobody defends them.

"Unfortunately, when unionist politicians don't speak up for them, they drift towards paramilitaries. Michael McIlveen's murder was atrocious but plenty of 15-year-old Protestants have been murdered in Northern Ireland and we heard little about it.

"Nationalist politicians are using this death for political leverage. It's untrue to say Ballymena is dangerous for Catholics. Protestant teenagers get beaten up as well. Two Protestant families in Dunclug and Millfield have just been warned by police they're not safe.

"Relations between the communities have never been so tense. The police privately admit Ballymena is one of the strongest areas for dissident republicans. The dissidents are trying to take over the place. Sinn Féin getting on the council has incited hatred too.

"Monica Digney says the hunger-strikers were heroes and she agrees with everything they did. What sort of message does that send out, supporting terrorists who butchered Protestants?"

Michael McIlveen's funeral takes place tomorrow. Back at the scene where he was attacked, a woman says: "Some people think this will be a turning-point. I'd like to hope he'll be the last young Catholic beaten or killed here. But this is Ballymena."

This article appeared in the May 14, 2006 edition of the Sunday Tribune.

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