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6 May 2004 Edition

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'These people' - Catholics targeted by Sandy Row unionists

BY LAURA FRIEL

"THESE people don't belong here and we have to maintain every wee bit of Ulster soil that's left," one unionist told the Belfast News Letter this week. His comments followed the distribution of anti-Catholic leaflets and a unionist picket of an apartment block in South Belfast's Sandy Row district calling for the eviction of Catholic residents.

"We want these people to leave but if it comes to it they could be ordered out at just 24 hours notice," said one of four unionists who refused to be identified. The men threatened to "do whatever it takes" to get Catholics to leave the area.

Earlier in the week, sectarian leaflets calling for Catholic residents to be driven from the area were delivered to homes in Sandy Row. The leaflets called on residents to attend an anti-Catholic meeting to be held at the local Orange Hall. The Orange Order claimed it was "unaware" of the meeting.

The Whitehall Square apartment block is close to the city centre and the affluent university area. Built several years ago, the 120 apartments were seen as adding to the increasing cosmopolitan ethos of Belfast city centre. The complex sits at the crossroads close to a well-known unionist paramilitary pub and Orange Hall.

Local unionists have branded the development as "Vatican Square", although it is believed that only a handful of Catholic residents actually live there. A Queens University student from Dublin said her father bought the apartment as an investment. The final year student said she is leaving and other residents are also leaving following an ongoing campaign of intimidation.

Late last Friday night, residents had been woken by the sound of drumming when a unionist band playing sectarian paramilitary tunes gathered outside the complex. A few hours later, the apartment block was attacked.

The reinforced glass security entrance to the complex was badly damaged after a sustained attack by men wielding baseball bats and sledgehammers failed to gain access to the building. After a week of sustained intimidation, a number of Catholic residents have now decided to leave.

Two days earlier, on Wednesday evening, an estimated 500 unionists and bandsmen targeted Whitehall Square in a lynch mob-style show of strength against Catholic residents, dubbed "republican spies".

Reminiscent of their response to the unionist blockade of Holy Cross and the siege of the Short Strand, the PSNI made no attempt to disperse the mob or confront what was clearly an incitement to hatred.

On Wednesday morning, just hours before the unionist rally, sectarian graffiti had been daubed on the apartment complex and anti-Catholic leaflets distributed. Despite the sectarian and inflammatory nature of the rally, unionist politicians appeared divided, with some supporting the action and others condemning it.

Counter-claims by unionist paramilitaries that Protestant residents of Sandy Row have been abused by Catholic residents from the apartments have been dismissed as nonsense by the PSNI. Unionist paramilitaries attempted to justify their campaign of sectarian intimidation against the children of Holy Cross and the Short Strand community by citing fabricated stories of "republican" attacks.

Despite any evidence to support these nonsensical claims, the history of anti-Catholic and racist attacks in the area and the fact that Sandy Row is a UDA stronghold, some prominent unionist politicians chose to add credence to the allegations by reiterating them.

UNIONIST REACTION

UUP councillor Bob Stoker claimed the rally was in response to attacks on "Protestants" by "republicans" in Sandy Row. The UUP councillor refused to condemn the leaflet as sectarian, while suggesting that a 500-strong rally calling for Catholic residents to be expelled was not intimidation because he "would like to see them leave voluntarily".

"If people [Catholic residents] are going to abuse the residents [of Sandy Row] they have to suffer the consequences," said Stoker. "I would like them [Catholic residents] to leave voluntarily if they are responsible for the attacks or abuse."

UUP Assembly member Michael McGimpsey reiterated his unionist colleague's support for the rally, describing it as "a non-threatening protest", while claiming that it was not anti-Catholic. McGimpsey blamed rentpaying tenants living within the apartment complex.

"Some people [Catholics] who have moved in as tenants have been behaving in an insulting way," said McGimpsey. Questioned further, the UUP Assembly member said the residents of Sandy Row had been insulted by the sight of a Tricolour "hung from a window" and had suffered "verbal abuse".

There is no evidence that either of these spurious allegations is true. Sandy Row is festooned with unionist paramilitary flags and sectarian anti-Catholic and racist graffiti, but apparently no one is "insulted" by this.

There is no record of any complaint or report of any anti-Protestant incident to the PSNI. And to suggest that such an incident gives the mob the right to target all Catholics in the area is racist in itself.

Following a further attack on the apartment block on Wednesday night, McGimpsey condemned the incident but continued to seek justification for the perpetrators. The attack had been "provoked by nationalists", said McGimpsey.

"It was only when certain elements began to taunt local residents that the problems started. The Sandy Row community was welcoming until such times as they were taunted," he claimed.

Conveniently, McGimpsey appears to have forgotten that for the last two years Catholics, as well as other residents from the Chinese and Asian community, living in the Whitehall complex and surrounding areas have been subjected to a campaign of sectarian and racist intimidation.

"Taigs Out" was daubed on the complex last year and when contractors arrived to remove the graffiti their van was attacked with baseball bats and set on fire by a gang of masked unionists.

"It is total nonsense for Bob Stoker and other unionists to claim republicans are involved in attacks on Protestants in Sandy Row," said former Belfast mayor and South Belfast Assembly member Alex Maskey.

"The majority of people in South Belfast are opposed to racist or sectarian intimidation and I think unionist politicians would be better supporting those."

STARK CONTRAST

In stark contrast to McGimpsey, UUP Assembly member Esmond Birnie dismissed the leaflets as "sectarian propaganda" and described the rally as "intimidatory".

"This was intimidatory and was designed to intimidate," said Birnie. The UUP politician condemned those involved and accused them of trying to create a "white supremacist Protestant homeland". Birnie said such a campaign was out of step with mainstream unionism.

"They seem to hate people with different skins, cultures, religions and political outlook," said Birnie. "It is they who are the real foreigners, immigrants from a time and place in which it was acceptable to look down upon those who appeared and sounded different.

"It should be seen as a sign of progress that Roman Catholics do want to live in a part of the city that was for far too long seen as the preserve of one community," said the UUP Assembly member.

A number of residents who have already been forced to flee described the apartments themselves as beautiful. "People paid a lot of money for them," said a former resident, but sectarian and racist harassment have rendered the place "a living hell". Another former resident left after swastika signs and racist graffiti calling for "Chinks to get out" appeared on walls.ยง

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