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22 October 1998 Edition

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Sectarian intimidation in Whitewell reaches crisis

``We're just waiting for our turn to come''

by Laura Friel

    
  We heard glass smashing and a loud banging against our front door. We heard our front windows being smashed through. My son came running downstairs shouting, `a rock has come through the window upstairs and hit me on the chest,' and our child woke up screaming uncontrollably. I immediately took my wife and child out our back door into the garden and pushed them through the hedge to the next door garden. 
At the foot of Cavehill and on the shores of Belfast Lough, the Whitewell and adjoining Graymount estate should be an ideal place to raise a family. As we drive into the estate, the sun is shining and the sky blue, only the telltale number of `For sale' notices indicate a serious problem in the area.

On the outskirts of North Belfast, this nationalist enclave has in recent years become the focus of unrelenting sectarian intimidation and attack. ``Catholics here are very nervous,'' says one nationalist resident, ``we're just waiting for our turn to come.'' The timing of this upsurge in sectarian intimidation is not accidental. Both nationalist residents in the Whitewell area and the residents in the adjoining loyalist White City cite Drumcree as a significant factor. As one loyalist resident told a survey conducted by North Belfast Community Development Centre, ``Drumcree sort of brought it to a head for the Protestants''.

On Monday of last week Cecilia McErlean and her family were asleep at 5am when loyalists attacked her Serpentine Road house. Petrol poured through the letterbox was ignited. A fire alarm woke the family in time for them to escape without injury but the memory of the brutal murder of the Quinn children of Ballymoney continues to haunt Catholics vulnerable to attack. Today the McErlean home is boarded up and the family is living in a hostel, awaiting rehousing.

On the same night the home of Carmila Finlay in Whitewell was attacked by the same loyalist gang. The Finlay family, who own a number of retail businesses in the Whitewell area, have been targeted for attack on a number of occasions. On 12 October, a settee left on the front porch was set alight, igniting an overhanging balcony and badly scorching the front living room window frame. Since the attack the family have complained of RUC harassment.

Paul McKiernan, a married man with four children, has lived in the Whitewell estate for over six years. His roots in the Greencastle area go back several generations. As a local community worker, Paul does not see the recent upsurge of loyalist violence as an orchestrated campaign of intimidation. ``I don't think it's the case that loyalist paramilitaries have moved into the frame and decided to pursue a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing,'' says Paul. In some ways such a scenario would be more clear cut. For Paul the answer lies in a more informal spinoff from heightened sectarianism engendered by the Orange Order's protest at Drumcree. ``Beating the sectarian drum at Drumcree translates itself into burning Catholics out in vulnerable areas, Whitewell is just another vulnerable area,'' says Paul.

Nationalist residents are critical of the RUC's response to loyalist violence. Their failure to protect Catholic homes and businesses is compounded by constant harassment by the RUC particularly of nationalist youth. A booklet produced by North Belfast Community Development Centre recounts a heart-rending account of one family's experience of the RUC during a loyalist attack. ``We heard glass smashing and a loud banging against our front door. We heard our front windows being smashed through. My son came running downstairs shouting, `a rock has come through the window upstairs and hit me on the chest,' and our child woke up screaming uncontrollably. I immediately took my wife and child out our back door into the garden and pushed them through the hedge to the next door garden.'' The resident returned to his house. The mob outside was shouting ``We'll kill you fenian bastards when we get in''. As the front door started to splinter, the man and his son ran into the back garden waiting ``to defend ourselves if we could''.

It was 1am. Seven hours earlier the family had contacted the RUC asking for protection. They were told ``we'll try to send someone there''. The family telephoned again, the RUC claimed if they came out ``it would probably draw more attention'' to the family. The family were then told, ``it might quiet down''. A third telephone call and the RUC said ``they would have trouble getting into us.'' Terrified and denied protection the family nailed planks across the front windows and door.

A fourth telephone call was made as the mob smashed their way into the house. The RUC arrived to tell the family that they couldn't guarantee their safety. The family gathered a few belongings and left. ``My wife's car was in the driveway, the windows were all smashed and someone had tried to set fire to the rear seats, however the car was still mobile. As we were leaving the mob was shouting and laughing `Good riddance to you fenian bastards'''. The family never returned.

Local residents are not only critical of the RUC's failure to protect them but also the Housing Executive's lack of response both in rehousing Catholics who have been intimidated out of their homes and addressing the subsequent pressure on housing in nationalist areas. ``Families can spend months in hostels waiting to be rehoused,`` says Paul.

But the problem cuts much deeper than that. A refusal to formally recognise the impact of sectarian intimidation on housing need and allocation by the Housing Executive exacerbates the situation. When Catholic families request housing in the relative safety of already overcrowded nationalist estates, a lengthy waiting list is seen only as a consequence of `individual choice' to live in a `popular' area.

Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of nationalist families, whose need is recognised as a priority may wait for years to be housed while in depopulated loyalist areas housing can be allocated immediately without recourse to need assessment. ``Every time a family gets intimidated out of Graymount,'' says Paul, ``the waiting list for Whitewell grows longer. We need the Housing Executive to take immediate and decisive action to provide sufficient safe housing to meet the housing shortage in nationalist areas. In this area they are doing little or nothing.''



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