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23 September 1999 Edition

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The forgotten estate

By Pádraig MacDabhaid

This week An Phoblacht visited Antrim's Springfarm estate, one of the town's many forgotten estates, and spoke to local residents, community workers and Sinn Féin activists from the area about the social and political problems facing the estate.

A murder and numerous attacks have highlighted problems created by the Housing Executive's policy of dumping criminal families in the area. Many of these families are involved in the lucrative drug trade and have teamed up with dissident loyalists to intimidate local residents.

``Because the area is so far out of town, nobody sees it and the council just doesn't care,'' says one resident, describing Antrim Council's attitude to the growing problems of the Springfarm estate.

Springfarm currently has an unemployment rate of about 80 per cent and many of its inhabitants are single parents. The estate was largely ignored by the wider public and the mainstream unionist and nationalist politicians until earlier this year, when Noel Martin was brutally murdered at his home on the estate.

The increasing number of families moving out of the estate has been attributed to anti-social elements, particularly drug dealers, who have been moved into the estate in recent years by the Housing Executive and who are now linking up with dissident loyalists, prompting residents to describe the estate as ``a dumping ground for undesirables''.

One man who has done his best to stem this rising anti-social tide is Seamus Davis.

Davis became a community activist about six or seven years ago. ``I began getting involved when a neighbour's windows were broken. I started by writing letters and it developed from there''.

He is now Chair of the Antrim Community Forum, which is made up of about ten community groups from estates in Antrim, representing all shades of political opinion, and he works from a community house on the estate which runs women's groups, a mother and toddlers group and various children's projects, which have sent children on holidays to the United States.

However, Seamus Davis's work has not gone unhindered. About three years ago, he was targeted by thugs on the estate. He explained: ``I have come under numerous personal attacks: my home has been attacked; my car was smashed four days after I bought it; my wife and two young children have been threatened; in July there was a pipe-bomb attack at my home; masked and armed men have been seen outside my home; I have been threatened in the street and I now live in a virtual fortress.''

Speaking about the type of problems which exist on the estate Davis said: ``I have seen older children throwing stones at a baby in a pram. I met a woman who broke down crying in the street because youths threw stones at her while she was walking her dog. I've given up calling the RUC.''

However, by far the worst attack to take place on the estate was the murder of Noel Martin. Martin had money stolen from his home. He reported it to the RUC. The next night he was beaten to death and his body burned. Many local people saw the culprits burning the clothes they had worn when they carried out the killing but were too afraid to speak out. Even today, most residents will not speak out about the murder. Explaining the effect that the murder had on the estate, Davis said: ``People went into their houses and locked their doors in terror.''

Sinn Féin in the Antrim area are now hoping that they can repeat the success that they have had in cleaning up the Rathenraw estate. Sinn Féin's Martin McManus explained their concept of people power: ``What we are about is helping people help themselves. In the Rathenraw estate, we began a campaign to get residents on the estate involved in leafleting and pickets. At the beginning, people were afraid to stand up to the anti-social elements but as the campaign moved along, the people's confidence grew to the point where we had whole families participating.''

Rathenraw was once like Springfarm - now there is a waiting list to get into the area - obvious evidence of the success of the campaign. Sinn Féin has been very happy at the response it has received in Springfarm to date. ``People have told us that since we began working in the area some of the anti-social elements have kept a low profile. We have visited people of various religious and political persuasions who have told us they are pleased with the work Sinn Féin is now doing in the area,'' McManus said.

He was scathing of the RUC, who he says will not help the people because those involved in anti-social behaviour are easy targets to be recruited as informers.

One point that the Sinn Féin man was forceful in putting was that if this rot is not stopped now it will be too late and the estate will be demolished.

As for the future, Sinn Féin is planning to hold a conference within the next month in the town which will see anti-drugs campaigners and community groups from Dublin linking up with campaigners in Antrim.

McManus said: `` Dublin councillors Christy Burke and Larry O'Toole are due to attend the conference, as are members of community groups from Dublin.''

Speaking about Sinn Féin's role in the future, McManus said: ``Antrim Council will not even acknowledge that a drug problem exists in the area but we intend to continue our work throughout the town. Most of all we want people to know that we will help and work for them in whatever way we can.''
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An Phoblacht
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