18 February 1999 Edition
Belfast nationalists build links with Garvaghy residents
The marching issue refuses to go away. In Portadown loyalists are planning yet more protests as the siege of the nationalist Garvaghy Road continues for an eighth month. In other isolated nationalist areas fears grow that the looming marching season will bring more trouble.
But nationalist residents are refusing to lie down to domination. In Portadown they are linking up with activists in other area and in Newtownbutler they are fighting a legal battle designed to scare them into giving up their protest
Mary Maguire was on the Garvaghy Road to witness a highly significant coming together of community activists
It was a long awaited day. Last Saturday, some 40 leading Belfast community activists rolled into the Garvaghy Road Drumcree Centre to meet their twenty Portadown counterparts. The visit was part of an effort to build links between the isolated residents and Belfast activists in areas where skills, information, training and facilities could be shared.
``It is also a way for us to show our solidarity with a community that is threatened on a daily basis,'' one activist said. After weeks of meetings and discussions, it was also the first concrete step towards the implementation of projects that will link Belfast and Portadown nationalist residents in an unprecedented way.
The group split into two workshops. These were designed to be forums of debate that focused on the needs of the nationalist community. They covered twelve issues, including housing problems, the lack of decent leisure facilities and health and psychological problems. Issues directly related to the sectarianism in Portadown and the ongoing siege of the area since last July were also raised.
The main themes of the workshops were youth, women's issues, culture and social-related matters. As the workshops unfolded, discussions on these themes gave way to concrete ways of implementing projects. Contact numbers were exchanged and dates for the kick-start of certain projects were mentioned.
An issue discussed at length in the first working group was the need for the various nationalist housing and tenant associations to coordinate their efforts. The creation of a cultural centre was also proposed to help the youth focus on challenges and divert their attention from the trauma that many youth are currently experiencing.
In the second workshop, one of the highlights of the discussion was the difficulties of getting projects funded. The Portadown community activists outlined how, recently, the British National Lottery turned down an application for funding with no explanation, except that the Garvaghy Road community groups had shown too much ``ambition''.
``Some funders would like to help, but they are blocked at a certain level. We are also receiving alarming information that some of the funding is conditional on the bilateral talks between the Coalition and the Orange Order,'' said a community activist. ``People who are obtaining funding in the town do so on the basis that certain projects are cross-community. In other words, they use us as an excuse to cash cheques that we don't see the colour of''.
The discrimination and inequality - believed to be the basis of a majority of the decisions to deny funding - was said to be similar to the situation community activists of West Belfast had experienced for years. ``You must take them on. For years we had the same problem and still today, we have to battle to get funds that are recuperated by organisations that claim to be working on a cross-community level,'' said one West Belfast cultural organiser. ``You must systematically take them on and challenge decisions''.
It was proposed that a special group meet in the next weeks to discuss the most effective strategies to counter this ongoing discrimination.
Concrete projects in the areas of sport, Irish language, alcohol and drugs awareness were also made. The need for the activities to be staged on the Garvaghy Road was stressed. A football match, that could be followed by information sessions and an experience-sharing evening was put forward.
After the workshops, Garvaghy Road residents spokesperson Breandan Mac Cionnaith also spoke of the political situation and new indications that worse violence was feared. ``The loyalist protest demonstrations are ongoing and the consequences have become more and more serious. A number of Catholic residents of roads situated on interfaces had moved and more applications have been sent in to the Housing Executive.''
More worrying is that four new protests have been planned in the next month. One rally is due to take place on the lower Garvaghy Road and another, this Friday, is planned at the Cocrain Orange Hall, within feet of a nationalist estate. Another rally is planned for 10 March. This protest, expected to be the largest and held on the day powers are to be transferred from
London to the Belfast, is a mirror of the way Drumcree has become a focus for the anti-Agreement unionist and loyalist elements.
``The issue is no longer if the Orange Order is going to walk down the road, but more so what is the long-term strategy in our case'', said Mr Mac Cionnaith.
The hidden agenda of the main media actors, and the near unanimous acceptance of RUC reports as objective were questioned at length.
``The misrepresentation of the situation in Portadown is increasingly worrying'', as it is bound to backfire on the nationalist residents in the next weeks when the Orange Order will claim that it should have the right to walk down the Garvaghy Road.
After the working session, the Belfast community activists were taken for a tour around the town and the various areas. Many expressed a deep sense of shock at what they saw. ``I only realise now that you have to live here to understand what is going on in this town. Even when you see it with your own eyes, it is virtually impossible to understand what these people have to put up with day in, day out,'' said one of West Belfast's leading social workers.
``It's not enough to acknowledge this. We must act, and act now to show our solidarity and broaden the network of grass-roots activism across the Six Counties''.
Trimble fails First Minister obligation
David Trimble's response last week to a request for a meeting with the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition (GRRC) that such a meeting would ``not be helpful'' showed ``contempt for the community'', said GRRC spokesperson Breandan MacCionnaith.
Following Trimble's 90 minute meeting on Tuesday with Portadown Orangemen, Trimble has also been accused of failing in his obligation as First Minister to deal with issues in order to promote equality.
The RUC has also been accused of failing to respond to Loyalists who terrorised shoppers in Portadown on Monday afternoon. Thirty Loyalists targeted individual shoppers with sectarian abuse as they went about their business on Woodhouse Street at 3pm. A mother with two toddlers and a young Catholic teenager were abused and taunted with chants about the death of young nationalist Robert Hamill, who was kicked to death by Loyalists yards from an RUC patrol in the town less than two years ago.
One witness to Monday's incident said, ``the Loyalists rampaged through the shopping centre and turned on individuals. There were grown men with the gang. There were some security guards there but they failed to intervene and just stood by and watched. The RUC didn't turn up for at least 15-20 minutes and by then the Loyalists had dispersed back through the shopping centre.''
A similar incident involving 12-20 Loyalists occurred in the same area on Tuesday afternoon.
Meanwhile British minister Adam Ingram has revealed that following the introduction of the new Public Order Act only 12 people have been prosecuted, and none successfuly for their involvement in the siege of Garvaghy Road, the almost nightly illegal Loyalist gatherings and attacks on the homes and businesses of nationalist residents, and the countless infringements of Parades Commission restrictions by Loyalists and Orange Order supporters.
Prosecutions designed to discourage future anti-march protest
Trial stalled over video controversy
The trial of 18 people from Newtownbutler in County Fermanagh on charges arising out of a Black Perceptory march in the town in August 1997 got underway last Thursday 11 February. Already it is dogged by controversy with Thomas O'Reilly, chair of the Newtownbutler Area Residents Association (NARA), dubbing it ``a show-trial''.
Mr O'Reilly told An Phoblacht that an attempt by the DPP to introduce the catch-all charge of ``seeking to hinder'' the Black Perceptory march in place of the original ``obstruction'' charges faced by the 18 was ``an attempt to ensure easy convictions''.
Mr O'Reilly said, ``the other big sticking point is the video evidence that was introduced. The DPP presented defence lawyers with a tape that was ten minutes shorter than that which they were using.'' The solicitors for the 18 are now making a legal challenge to what NARA see is an attempt at legal sleight of hand on the part of the DPP and are asking the judge to dismiss the case, a request that the judge has so far resisted.
The Newtownbutler residents claim the DPP came to the court with evidence that was doctored to give them an advantage over the defence. ``They could hardly make a proper defence if they weren't aware of all the evidence that was to be put against them,'' Thomas O'Reilly said.
Up until now however the legal arguments as to whether the DPP video can be used or not is still to be decided.
The case arises from a protest in 1997 when residents of Newtownbutler objected to a Royal Black Preceptory parade through their town and were beaten off the streets by the RUC. A woman seriously injured when she was beaten to the ground was taken away by ambulance. Those on the nationalist side, holding a peaceful protest, and who attempted to assist the woman were assaulted and some injured.
The RUC attack was unprovoked and now in an attempt to justify their brutality the RUC, aided and abetted by the DPP, are trying to convict 18 nationalist residents, NARA claims.
``These are clearly politically motivated prosecutions,'' insisted Thomas O'Reilly, ``and with the marching season creeping up on us once again there is a definite attempt to intimidate nationalists from objecting to unwanted Orange parades.
``It took the DPP 18 months to bring charges and it is possible that they may bring more charges. It seems that they want this to drag on and might charge others just to keep the pressure on the residents who don't want these parades''.
As the trial is scheduled to last for three weeks some of those charged fear for their livelihood. Some are farmers who are finding it difficult to travel from their farms to Enniskillen every day to appear in court while other employed people fear that their employers may not take a sympathetic view of them being off work for such a long time.
``This is a witch-hunt,'' Sinn Fein Assembly member for Fermanagh Gerry McHugh said. ``People have the right to object to parades they find offensive yet the full force of Orange law is being brought to bear for no other reason than to intimidate nationalists and stamp out the right to peaceful protest''.
Each day that the trial is being heard Sinn Fein in the area are organising a picket outside the court and are urging anyone who can make it to attend.