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22 August 2002 Edition

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Sectarian pogrom forces Antrim Catholics to flee

BY LAURA FRIEL


Over the last year, Catholics living in Antrim have been subjected to a vicious campaign of sectarian intimidation in which loyalist paramilitaries have repeatedly targeted families in their homes, workers at their place of employment, children and their parents at school and even relatives attending a local cemetery.

Loyalist violence in Antrim has already resulted in almost 60 families being forced to flee from their homes, over ten children being withdrawn from school and a number of workers leaving their jobs. After a number of brutal assaults, many Catholic families no longer feel safe to shop or pursue leisure activities in the town. "We are being ghettoised," said a resident.

Red, white and blue kerbstones, loyalist paramilitary flags, sectarian murals and graffiti threatening members of the Catholic community, or more often all the Catholic community, are now a part of the urban landscape. Death threats are commonplace, either general 'Kill all Taigs' or 'Remember Ciaran Cummings' or more specific threats in which a named individual is warned 'watch your back'.

Ciaran Cummings was a 19-year-old Catholic worker shot dead by loyalists at an Antrim roundabout as he waiting for a lift to work. Since his death, there have been three more sectarian shootings by loyalists.

Twenty-year-old postal worker Daniel McColgan was gunned down as he arrived at Rathcoole postal sorting office. Nineteen-year-old Gavin Brett was shot dead in the mistaken belief he was a Catholic outside St Enda's GAA club. Most recently, 19-year-old Gerard Lawlor, a truck driver, was shot dead just yards from his front door last month. Another two people have been beaten to death, the most recent being Christopher Witson.

As with other areas that have witnessed an increase in organised loyalist violence, rivalry between loyalist groupings is being played out through increased attacks on the Catholic community.

In Belfast, the UDA and latterly the UVF, have successfully attracted young recruits by beating the sectarian drum. Antrim appears to be following that example. Over the last year in Antrim, large number of young loyalists have joined the Ulster Young Militants, a youth wing of the UDA and the UVF equivalent, the Young Citizens Volunteers.

At St Malachy's Catholic High School, attacks on individual Catholic pupil walking to and from school, which began shortly after the beginning of the new school year and continued until the summer vacation, soon escalated into full-scale confrontations with loyalist mobs, sometimes 50, 100 and 150 strong.

Sectarian flags of the UVF and YCV were erected outside the Catholic school. When parents responded by accompanying their children to school, they received loyalist death threats. One parent's name with an accompanying threat was painted across the roadway in the approach to the school.

In July, repeated attacks on individual Catholic homes escalated into loyalist mob attacks. On 8 July, at around 11.30pm, over 100 loyalists attacked the nationalist Rathenraw estate. Residents were forced to defend their own homes and a standoff ensued. The loyalist mob dispersed only to return later and attack Catholic homes in the Styles area.

A 79-year-old woman, who had lived in the same house for over 30 years, was forced to flee after a loyalist mob attacked her home. A Protestant family who had a Catholic man staying with them, escaped injury when two petrol bombs where hurled through downstairs windows while they were sleeping upstairs. The man had been staying with the family after being burnt out of his home in the Styles area earlier in the year.

In one incident in July, a couple and their 11-week-old daughter escaped injury when a masked man, armed with a sawn-off shotgun, entered their Antrim home. The 32-year-old father challenged the masked gunman, who fired a number of shots before running away.

This week in Randalstown, an armed loyalist mob smashed their way into the home of a Catholic woman and threatened to shoot her son. The family had been woken just before 2am last Tuesday by the sound of someone trying to smash through the back door.

When the woman's 26-year-old son looked out, he saw three men wearing balaclavas. One of the men was using a sledgehammer to break down the door. A second assailant used a baseball bat to try and break a window. The third was carrying a gun.

The woman's screams alerted her neighbours and unable to break in, the gang ran away. Before leaving, the gunman had pointed his weapon at the woman's son.

"It was absolutely horrendous," said the woman. "I was sure someone in this house was going to die." Her son has subsequently moved and the rest of the family will probably follow shortly. "I could not put any of my children through this again," she said.

Earlier in the year, Catholic teenagers shopping or spending an evening in Antrim town had been targeted by loyalist gangs; by mid June they had turned their attention to Catholics working in the town.

A shop assistant working in a sports shop in the High Street was attacked and beaten by a loyalist gang. A second Catholic shop assistant was beaten and warned not return to his job in a video shop.

Customers watching one of Ireland's World Cup matches at a public house on the High Street were threatened and told not to return. On 21 June, Catholic customers watching the England v Brazil world cup match were attacked and beaten by a loyalist mob in a local bar in the centre of Antrim.

Meanwhile, a Catholic cemetery in Carnmoney had been under repeated attack. In a series of sectarian attacks, Catholic graves, up to 20 at a time, were vandalised. Headstones were smashed and photographs of the deceased were gouged out of the stone. Even the grave of Daniel McColgan was desecrated.

In the wake of loyalist attacks, nationalists are often described as 'lucky to be alive'. Instead of anger and outrage, the victim is encouraged to feel 'fortunate', in having 'escaped' certain death or injury. As if being 'lucky to be alive' should suffice.

In Antrim over the last year, loyalist paramilitaries have systematically stripped away all the trappings of citizenship from the nationalist/Catholic community. Catholic families cannot expect to sleep peacefully and safely in their homes at night.

Catholic workers cannot work without fear of intimidation. Catholic children cannot walk to school without fear of attack or confrontation. Catholics cannot mourn or honour their dead unmolested. Shopping and socialising are fraught with danger for members of the Catholic community.

Catholics in Antrim aren't second-class citizens, they are non-citizens, and as such, like the beasts in the fields, loyalists believe they should be content with being 'lucky to be alive'.
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