10 July 2008 Edition
Sectarianism in Stoneyford
BY LAURA FRIEL
IT’S A TRUTH, yet to be universally acknowledged, that sectarian violence is often underpinned by sectarian exclusion. Since partition, the maintenance of the Six-County state has relied on the duel mechanisms of political exclusion and intimidation.
This was the ‘nationalist nightmare’ which the promise of the Peace Process sought to address, but a decade after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement heralded a new political dispensation, there are still some unionist politicians and loyalist paramilitaries who don’t want “a Catholic about the place”.
Unionist-dominated Lisburn Borough Council has the reputation of being one of the most bigoted councils in the North. It’s not without a sense of irony that nationalists living within Lisburn recall the council’s successful campaign for city status and its promotional slogan “A City for All.”
The council’s reputation for sectarian exclusion has been long in the making and, in the past, has included refusing to provide basic services and amenities such as waste collection and playgrounds for children in the predominantly Catholic Poleglass and Twinbrook areas of Lisburn.
The council also has a long history of excluding Sinn Féin elected representatives from all council positions and this year’s AGM proved to be no different.
Despite the fact that Sinn Féin is the largest nationalist party in Lisburn, the UUP and DUP – with the acquiescence of the SDLP – worked together to exclude the party.
But don’t imagine the exclusion of the largest nationalist party has anything to do with any kind of principled aversion to working with former combatants. Any such notion would be instantly contested by a recent decision by the unionist-dominated council to support loyalists currently engaged in a sectarian campaign of intimidation against Catholics living in the nearby Stoneyford village.
Over the last three years, Catholic families living in Stoneyford have been systematically targeted by a loyalist gang believed to be connected to the Orange Volunteers. Catholics living in the village have had their homes repeatedly attacked, their children threatened and they have received numerous death threats.
During one incident a 14-year-old schoolboy was threatened by a known loyalist who objected to the child wearing a GAA shirt. The loyalist threatened: “I’ll break your legs and your home will be up for sale.”
The same family was subsequently sent a message: “We know you are Catholics. You are dead – UDA.” Their home has been pelted with bricks and bombarded with fireworks. Elderly relatives have also been targeted.
Not surprisingly, there has been a steady haemorrhage of Catholic residents leaving the village, most forced to flee after repeated intimidation and threats to their lives and property.
Last month claimed yet another victim as another Catholic family was forced to flee from their home in the County Antrim village.
An elderly couple decided to leave after windows in their home were smashed for the second time this year. On both occasions the family were asleep upstairs at the time of the attack. The couple are related to another family forced to leave the village earlier this year.
The attack took place after a sinister message was broadcast inadvertently by BBC Radio Ulster.
The message, which was read out during a popular local chat programme, said: “Can you please shout out a big bye, bye, bye to the Braniff family from all the boys in Stoneyford.”
The Catholic Braniff family has been the focus of a sustained campaign of sectarian intimidation and finally left the village after loyalists attempted to kidnap the family’s 13-year-old son.
It’s only against this backdrop that Lisburn Council’s decision to fund an event organised by the same loyalist gang can be fully appreciated. Initially an application by the ‘Stoneyford Jubilee Committee’ was rejected by council officials because it did not meet the council’s own criteria.
Sinn Féin Councillor Paul Butler MLA condemned the DUP’s decision to overturn council policy and fund an Eleventh Night event in Stoneyford village as “a reward for bigotry”.
Council officials had already rejected the application for funding an Eleventh Night event because it did not meet the necessary criteria. Despite this, the DUP overturned the decision during the council’s monthly meeting and gave funding “to this sectarian event,” said Paul Butler.
“Lisburn Council is supporting activities by loyalists who are intent upon intimidating Catholics out of Stoneyford. This is totally unacceptable and Sinn Féin will be putting the matter before the Equality Commission.”
But unionist councillors in Lisburn aren’t the only officials refusing to challenge the loyalist gang. Despite the fact that those orchestrating this campaign of intimidation are well-known, not one loyalist has been arrested and charged by the PSNI in connection to any of the incidents.
The PSNI has even refused to acknowledge that there is an ongoing campaign of sectarian intimidation against Catholics in the village. In 2005, the PSNI denied intimidation to the Irish Government. The denial came at a time when Catholics were being burnt out of their homes.
PSNI officers told Irish Government officials that there was “no reason for concern regarding sectarian activity in the area at the present time”. The comment came to light after an Irish Government letter was recently leaked to a local newspaper. Since 2005, at least four more Catholic families have been intimidated out of Stoneyford.
The letter goes on to say that the Irish Government has been “advised by the PSNI that there is no evidence to suggest that either an individual or specific organisation was responsible”.
The refusal of the PSNI to take any action against a known loyalist, who has been repeatedly named by the media as the gang’s ringleader, has led many to conclude that the PSNI are protecting him as a Special Branch agent.
Meanwhile, a convicted loyalist, Mark Harbinson, has applied to march through the village with a band which was involved in an illegal march last year. The Pride of the Village flute band ignored restrictions by the Parade Commission last year and staged an illegal march through the village close to Catholic residents already being targeted for sectarian intimidation