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12 April 2001 Edition

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Freedom from sectarian harassment

BY LAURA FRIEL

The Hayles and Christie families from North Belfast would like the right to freedom from sectarian harassment. They would like their children, and grandchildren, to go to school without being spat upon and threatened.

They would like to live quietly in a house of their own choosing and they would like to sleep easy at night content in the knowledge that their home will not be attacked with bricks, bombs and bullets.

They would also like the peace of mind of knowing their names and personal details had not been passed to a loyalist hit squad and they would like a police service prepared to protect them. But to the Hayles and Christie family these modest aspirations seem like an unachievable dream.

In the front living room of his home, William Christie, a father and grandfather in his late 60s describes the latest attack on his family. He is surprisingly calm and matter of fact, but then this is only the latest in a series of incidents, and life must go on.

About 10.30pm on Thursday 5 April a maroon Vauxhall Cavalier drew up outside the Christies' Alliance Avenue home. There were three men in the vehicle. William's daughter Lisa saw the car pull up from an upstairs window. A man in the back pulled up a gun and started shooting out of the back door window of the car.

``Lisa shouted down to us, Ôthey're shooting at the house', says William. The same car had been spotted earlier by the family. William's two daughters were standing in the front garden when the maroon Vauxhall momentarily drew up outside the house before speeding off towards the Deerpark area. Thirty minutes later the car returned and the shooting began.

Two bullets smashed through an upstairs window, piercing the glass. Other bullets struck the wall at either side of the window. One of William's sons shows An Phoblacht's photographer the main bedroom into which the shots were fired. There are two large bullet hole in the top window. No one was in the room during the attack.

William, his wife and a second daughter were downstairs. William's grandchildren were sleeping in another bedroom. William's daughter, her husband and their four children moved into the house after their own home was bombed by loyalists. In the hallway and dining area, the couple's furniture and belongings are stacked against the walls.

``We were just Catholics living in the wrong place,'' says William's son-in-law Harry Hayles. The Hayles family's Westland Road home stands just a few hundred yards away from the Christie's Alliance Avenue house.

Less than a ten-minute walk away, the Hayles' home was the last house in the street to be occupied by a Catholic family. And as the closest Catholic household to the nearby loyalist Westland estate, the Hayles family were a prime target for the UDA in its determination to maintain control of the area.

Two years ago in October a coded message to British Telecom warned of a pipe bomb attack on the Hayles' family home but nothing was found. A month later the windows were smashed by a loyalist mob, who shouted sectarian abuse at the terrified family.

Two days later the family returned home after celebrating their daughter's birthday to find they had been targeted in a pipe bomb attack. Windows had been broken in the explosion. A second device was discovered by a neighbour in a hedge at the front of the house. ``The RUC said my life was in danger,'' says Harry, ``and my personal details were in the hands of a loyalist death squad.''

In the spring of 2000 the family's windows were smashed again and their 12-year-old daughter was attacked by a woman in her 30s, who called her a ``fenian bastard''. In another incident William Christie was attacked and beaten by a loyalist gang after visiting his daughter and grandchildren at their Westlands home.

In the summer the house was attacked by a 40-strong loyalist mob, who threatened to paint the house red, white and blue and burn out the family. The family lived with the constant fear of being petrol bombed. ``We had fire extinguishers in every room,'' says Harry. ``You were afraid of sleeping too soundly at night.''

In another incident, loyalists painted the kerbstones outside the family's home red, white and blue. ``The RUC refused to stop them,'' says Harry. ``They said it was only for a month.''

During Drumcree, when a gang, dressed in loyalist regalia and attacking Catholic homes along the Westland Road was kept at bay by local residents, the RUC described the incident as trouble between Ôtwo rival gangs'. ``Residents were out in their pyjamas and dressing gowns trying to defend their families and homes,'' says Harry, ``because the RUC wouldn't do it.''

In the autumn, Harry and his wife were out when they stopped by the RUC and told that their house had been attacked and they'd better go home. ``They were laughing as they told us,'' says Harry. ``I used to report every incident to the RUC but there is really no point. They'll do nothing to protect us. I've no faith in the RUC and the sooner they're disbanded the better.''

In October 2000 the Hayes family moved out but the harassment has continued. ``My nine-year-old son attends a mixed school,'' says Harry. The child and his mother are subjected to repeated sectarian abuse, which includes name calling, spitting and on one occasion physical abuse. ``Other mothers leaving their children to school spit on my wife,'' says Harry, ``I can hardly believe it; my wife comes home and the back of her coat is covered with spit.

``I'm not a bitter person,'' says Harry, ``I know there are a lot of decent Protestant people. When we were being attacked in Westland Road, a number of neighbours who were Protestant risked retribution from the UDA by coming to our home and offering their support.''

A local weekly newspaper recently informed William Christie that he and his sons were on a loyalist hit list. When William contacted the local RUC to confirm this information, the RUC claimed to know nothing about it. Four hours later, the RUC arrived at the Christie home and informed William that he and his four sons were under threat from loyalists. ``If the North Belfast News knew, the RUC must have known too,'' says William, ``so why were the RUC sitting on the information?''

The two families remain remarkably resilient and restrained, but the truth is staring all of us in the face. If the Good Friday Agreement is ever going to be worth more than the paper its written on, the right to freedom from sectarian harassment will no longer be a dream but a living reality for families like the Christies and Hayles.
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An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1
Ireland
 

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