Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

15 June 2006 Edition

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Unionist violence: Call for unity against the bigots

Sinn Féin Councillor Billy Leonard

Sinn Féin Councillor Billy Leonard

Garvagh - the unacceptable face of unionism

Sinn Féin Councillor Billy Leonard recently wrote to all the political parties on Coleraine Borough Council calling on them to join him in an initiative aimed at reducing sectarian tensions in the town. Here, Billy Leonard speaks to An Phoblacht's PEADAR Ó FAOLÁIN about the events in the small town that prompted his decision to directly address unionist politicians.

On Thursday 11 May, at 3.30am in the morning, a young, single woman living alone with her young family was attacked by a unionist mob.

The young women, the latest Catholic to be targeted by sectarian thugs in the County Derry village of Garvagh, was asleep in her bed when her home was singled out and pelted with bricks. The incident received little or no media attention.

By coincidence, the information about the attack began to emerge at the same time as Sinn Féin councillor Billy Leonard was writing to all the political parties on Coleraine Borough council calling on them to join him in an initiative aimed at reducing sectarian tensions.

Leonard, who is the sole Sinn Féin councillor on Coleraine council, wrote to the political representatives of unionism as well as the SDLP in an attempt to get the council to show a united front in the face of an ongoing campaign of violence aimed at nationalist homes and businesses in Garvagh.

Ironically the media, exercised by the killing of Michael McIlveen in Ballymena, ignored the Leonard initiative.

So too did the DUP and UUP. Both parties refused to reply to Leonard's letter.

I met Billy Leonard on the town's main street where we agreed that it would be best to drive on to nearby Kilrea and continue with our interview in the local Sinn Féin centre. "It's not the most welcoming place", said Leonard indicating that as a Sinn Féin councillor he still needed to take precautions.

Indeed while serving as an SDLP councillor on Coleraine council loyalists left a bomb at his house.

"Since the end of April loyalist gangs have been involved in a series of incidents in Garvagh", said Leonard.

"On Friday 28 April two homes, belonging to Catholic families and a nationalist-owned hotel on the town's main street were targeted.

"Windows in the houses were smashed while people leaving a wedding party in the Imperial Hotel were subjected to sectarian abuse. The hotel's owner, Terence McIlvar was threatened".

Leonard reported that on 4 May, the home of two pensioners was pelted with eggs and that days later, on May 7, a sectarian gang attacked the home of Siobhan and Michael Conway.

Armed with baseball bats the loyalists smashed in a number of windows in the couples home.

Although the Conway's were able to give detailed descriptions of their assailants to the PSNI, the PSNI failed to pursue the gang. That attack was the fifth on the Conway home in the past two years

Garvagh has over the past number of years, changed in character. The once predominantly unionist town has seen an influx of nationalist residents and business people.

Leonard feels that the unionist violence of the past couple of years can be understood as a reaction to the population change and explained that a number of the new nationalist-owned businesses were targeted by arsonists.

However Leonard felt that before the unionist violence can end there was the need to address the discrimination practiced by the areas unionist political leadership. "I feel that political unionism is providing political cover for those involved in attacking Catholic homes and businesses in Garvagh. In response to the series of incidents at the end of April the DUP attempted to portray them as part of a series of, 'tit-for-tat', attacks. Nothing could be further from the truth".

But it is what is happening in the, "bigger political picture", that concerns Leonard the most.

Only last week at it's AGM Coleraine Borough Council, "done a Lisburn". The DUP and UUP dominated body refused to elect any nationalist political representatives to any of the council's committees when it met on Tuesday 6 June.

"Their behaviour was shameful", said Leonard, "and is another example of unionism's inability to see the elephant of discrimination in the room".

Concluding Leonard said, "when unionist politicians openly discriminate against the political representatives of nationalism they are clearly signalling to the bigots out there that Catholics or nationalists are fair game".

Ballymena and Lisburn councils, whose record of discrimination against nationalist politicians is legendary, have witnessed some of the worst violence perpetrated against nationalists and Catholics over the past number of years. "We don't want that pattern repeating itself in Garvagh", said Billy Leonard as he repeated his call for all parties in the area to stand together against the bigots.

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