3 June 2004 Edition

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Unionist violence: 'crisis' and 'perceptions'


A well-known loyalist from East Belfast spoke off camera to BBC Spotlight about the unionist paramilitary feud between the UVF and LVF. "Prod killing Prod," he said, "I'm sick of it all". A senior member of the PSNI told the journalist it was "loyalist violence against the loyalist community" and that just "was not acceptable".

David Ervine of the PUP questioned what was happening in unionist communities and suggested that unionist violence has ensued because "members of the security services were colluding with elements of the LVF to destabilise loyalism".

Speaking to Belfast's Newsletter, a loyalist source from East Belfast said his community was disgusted with the feud and lashed out at David Ervine for not condemning the UVF for "the shooting and bombing of Protestant homes".

Two weeks ago, the LVF attacked a number of houses. The UVF then assassinated LVF man Brian Stewart as he made his way home from work. A series of bomb and gun attacks followed in East Belfast and North Down. Dozens of families, mostly from East Belfast, fled their homes in fear of further attack.

No one should dismiss the fear and hurt unionist paramilitary infighting causes within unionist communities. No one should dismiss the efforts of those within the unionist community, the religious and political representatives, who have worked towards bring such violence to an end.

But in nationalist communities across the North, the question remains. If it is a "crisis", and most media and political commentators agree on this, when unionist violence is turned against unionists, why are attacks perpetuated by the same paramilitary forces against Catholics treated with less significance?

It's a curious thing. Is the violence more 'extreme' or more 'deadly' or more organised? Do unionists experience more fear, more pain, more trauma? Are their lives more fragile, more vulnerable, more precious?

Whatever the answer, evidence on the ground suggests a significant difference in the approach towards unionist violence when it is deployed against members of the unionist community as opposed to against nationalists.

Sectarian campaign

Since the beginning of this year, unionist paramilitaries have carried out over 750 sectarian bomb attacks and have been responsible for a number of sectarian killings. Unionist paramilitary attacks on the nationalist community have also experienced a marked increase within the last month. Those included attacks against elected nationalist political representatives.

The upsurge in unionist violence followed media reports that despite a 'tip off' the British Army and PSNI had failed to intercept a shipment of illegal weaponry, including submachine guns, Kalashnikov rifles, revolvers, handguns and a quantity of plastic explosives, now in the hands of unionist paramilitaries.

However, none of this sparked a "crisis". The British Government, which only weeks before, following the Tohill incident, had commissioned immediate intervention by the Trimble-inspired IMC, did nothing, said nothing. No one has called for a public inquiry into how a shipment of illegal weaponry sailed unchecked into Belfast docks. No one has condemned attacks on Sinn Féin councillors and Assembly members as an affront to democracy or the peace process.

Sectarian Stoker

Meanwhile, unionist paramilitaries were attacking and intimidating Catholic residents, and threatening them with forced eviction. UUP councillor Bob Stoker claimed the unionist paramilitary violence against the residents of the Whitehall complex was in response to attacks on "Protestants" by "republicans" in Sandy Row.

The UUP councillor refused to condemn the leaflet as sectarian while suggesting that a 500-strong rally calling for Catholic residents to be expelled was not intimidation because he "would like to see them leave voluntarily".

Stoker's sentiments were immediately reiterated by UUP Assembly member Michael McGimpsey, who described the gathering of a 500-strong unionist mob outside the homes of a handful of Catholics as "a non threatening protest" while claiming that it was not anti-Catholic.

Despite there was no evidence to support such an allegation, McGimpsey said the residents of Sandy Row had been insulted by the sight of a Tricolour "hung from a window" and by the sight of a resident wearing a Celtic football shirt.

Sandy Row is festooned with unionist paramilitary flags and sectarian anti-Catholic and racist graffiti but apparently no one is "insulted" by this. There is no record of any complaint or report of any anti-Protestant incident to the PSNI. And to suggest that such an incident gives the mob the right target all Catholics in the area is racist in itself.

But this didn't precipitate a "crisis" either. Unionist politicians had emerged to support sectarian intimidation by unionist paramilitaries in Sandy Row. Catholics fled their homes in the Whitehall complex. Catholics in Stoneyford were being driven from their homes by unionist paramilitaries as well. But still no whiff of a "crisis".

Eames "disappointing"

Instead, Church of Ireland Primate Robin Eames, who spectacularly failed to act decisively during mass unionist violence at the Drumcree blockade against the nationalist Garvaghy Road, told "Roman Catholics and nationalists" that they "must seek to understand the uncertainty and apprehension of their Protestant neighbours".

Descending into the rhetoric of legitimacy, Eames cited the "perceptions" of unionists rather than any real concrete grievance to be addressed.

"The perceptions of many in the Protestant community is that their ethos, their political aspirations and their stability as a community is being eroded by over attention on the part of the [British] government to demands from republicans," said Eames, and "perceptions become realities in Northern Ireland".

In other words, we can't address real issues that challenge the fantasy world of unionism. And imagined grievance must be placed on a par with the experience of real discrimination and injustice. Eames acknowledges the difference in his own choice of words. "Loyalists gangs continue to attack Roman Catholics. Protestants fear republican gangs," said Eames.

Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy described the Archbishop's remarks as "disappointing". "It would be much more productive for unionist and Protestant leaders to recognise the failures and injustices of the past and recognise that equality for all of the people in the Six Counties and across the island of Ireland threatens no one," said Murphy.

"Any lack of unionist confidence is bred not from the approach of Sinn Féin or the British Government but from the failure of unionist political leaders to embrace change and the demands of the Good Friday Agreement," said Murphy.

In the television studios of the BBC, Gary Mason, a Methodist member of the loyalist commission, described unionist paramilitary organisations as "fractured" to explain the "crisis" which had led to the recurrence of unionist internecine violence. Susan McKay of the Tribune cut him short. Such a notion suggests the solution is a return to "the good old days" when unionist paramilitary violence was united in targeting Catholics and nationalists.

Order hypocrisy

This week, the Orange Order appealed for the help of unionist paramilitaries to ensure a peaceful marching season. "At this time of rising tensions within our communities and as we approach the summer season when many of our traditional parades take place, I appeal to all community, political and paramilitary leaders and their respective organisations to do all in their power to ensure a peaceful outcome to our parades and celebrations of our culture and heritage," said Belfast Orange Order Grand Master, Dawson Bailie.

Of course, unionist paramilitaries have a long history of "helping" the Orange Order "celebrate" their "culture": Michael McGoldrick, the Quinn children, Elizabeth O Neill.

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