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29 April 1999 Edition

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How do they know you're a Catholic?

With this week marking the 300th day of siege of the Garvaghy Road, Laura Friel spent a day talking to local residents.

When a gang of youths asked 10-year-old Brian if he was ``a Fenian'', the boy answered truthfully that he didn't know. Every day, Brian travels the short bus journey from his home on the Garvaghy Road across Portadown town centre to the Catholic Convent school. The bus is frequently attacked by stone-throwing loyalist youths. Yet despite repeated parental warnings, on this particular school day Brian had spent his bus fare on sweets and was walking home.

It was a small deception by a child too innocent to realise the danger in which he had inadvertently placed himself. And now he was surrounded by a gang of hostile teenagers, pushing and pulling, demanding to know his denominational status. When Brian's coat was dragged open, his school uniform was sufficient to ensure him a beating. ``They hated me,'' Brian later told his mother, ``and they didn't even know me.''

In the local community centre, Brian's mother Marie sips a cup of coffee. It's a gloriously sunny Saturday afternoon, but life on the Garvaghy Road is no picnic. Since July last year, there have been over 170 Orange rallies and marches in Portadown. A few have been held in the town centre, but the vast majority have taken place on the interface around the Garvaghy Road. Many have been attempted loyalist incursions into the predominately nationalist estate. A further 50 are planned for the town between now and July of this year.

It's not just the sectarian loyalist gangs carrying out violent attacks that makes Portadown Ireland's Alabama. It's the collusion of everyone else. The RUC patrol which ignored the desperate pleading of Robert Hamill's companions to intervene. The shoppers who passed by as a frightened little schoolboy was attacked in the town centre by a gang looking for a ``fenian''.
Today, the Orange Order is holding a ``Grand'' parade. It is scheduled to pass around the Garvaghy Road area at 2.30pm. Inside the community centre, members of the Residents' Coalition are preparing to monitor the march and the crown force presence which accompanies it. Breandán MacCionnaith is answering the telephone while chatting to a journalist. Everyone is tired. The evening before, a delegation had travelled to County Cavan to address a meeting of local people. It was after midnight before they arrived back in Portadown.

``The first time I was asked to address a meeting,'' says Marie, ``I didn't sleep a wink the night before.'' That was only just over a month ago, ``but it's getting easier,'' says Marie. In the last few weeks, members of the Garvaghy Road Residents' Coalition have travelled to speak at venues across Ireland, recounting their experiences of sectarian intimidation to local community and residents' groups. ``The one question we always get asked,'' says Marie, ``is how do they know you're a Catholic?''

In Portadown, being a Catholic is almost as conspicuous as a black skin amongst white supremacists. There are numerous `give away' signs, a name, an address, your school, where you socialise, what direction you are walking from or to, even the entrance you use in the main shopping mall. Robert Hamill was kicked to death because he was walking away from a Catholic social club towards a nationalist estate. The loyalist gang waiting at the junction knew exactly how to identify `a taig'.

``And we always tell them,'' says Marie. ``It's because we all belong to the lighthouse family.'' Marie moves her head rhythmically side to side, side to side, her eyes fearfully scanning the horizon like the rotating flicker of a lighthouse beacon. Our companions roar with laughter.

But it's not just the sectarian loyalist gangs carrying out violent attacks that makes Portadown Ireland's Alabama. It's the collusion of everyone else. The RUC patrol which ignored the desperate pleading of Robert Hamill's companions to intervene. The shoppers who passed by as a frightened little schoolboy was attacked in the town centre by a gang looking for a ``fenian''. ``It wasn't the beating,'' says Marie of her son's ordeal. `` Brian was very upset because other boys' mothers had walked by and no one had tried to stop it.''

The weekend before last in the shopping mall, when a glass cola bottle from which a 13-year-old Catholic girl was drinking was smashed into her face, no one rushed to call an ambulance. The grey-haired elderly woman who jeered and gloated about the murder of Rosemary Nelson with other loyalists who had gathered on the edge of the Garvaghy Road is unlikely to have planted the car bomb herself.

  Catholics are not treated equally in Portadown. Catholics are alienated in Portadown. I know many of you feel you are being treated unjustly and so do I....There is a lot of talk of the Peace Process. Any genuine peace in Ireland must be based on justice and freedom and truth. All of the people must be treated equally. They are entitled to live their lives free from fear and harassment.  
Catholic Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Sean Brady, March 1999.

Since last July Portadown town centre has become a virtual `no-go area' for Catholics. Sporadic sectarian attacks on Catholic shoppers escalated into an orchestrated loyalist agenda. On one particular Saturday in August several hundred loyalists converged on the centre and forcibly expelled Catholic families shopping in the mall. The RUC did nothing. The mob attack was repeated a week later. Catholic shoppers and workers fled as Orangemen torched Catholic owned businesses in the town. The RUC did not intervene.

Jean, a pensioner and grandmother, stopped shopping in town after she was confronted by ``two big women'' who recognised her as a Garvaghy Road resident from television footage of a protest. A quiet authority gives Jean the air of a school governor or member of the parish council, but in Portadown a civic sense of duty requires greater courage. Like many of her neighbours, Jean is a resident of the Garvaghy Road ``not through choice'' but as a result of being intimidated out of another area. As a member of the Coalition she often finds herself at the cutting edge of confrontation.

As the Orange parade passes St John's Catholic church, Jean ignores the line of riot-clad RUC men, all twice her height and build, and urges me to come forward. ``Come on,'' says Jean, ``you can hear them playing The Sash.'' One of the restrictions placed on Orange parades marching around the Garvaghy Road interface is that no sectarian music is played. ``It's a restriction which is routinely flouted,'' says Jean. Several Orange bands playing The Sash pass in full view of three Parades Commissioners monitoring the parade.

  Farmers and householders living in the rural areas adjacent to Drumcree report that petty crime and annoyance caused by trespass has fallen dramatically since the start of the Orange protest last July. With Orangemen patrolling the country lanes most nights and hundreds of loyalist marchers converging on Drumcree almost nightly, it has deterred the gangs of youths and men from the nationalist Churchill Park, Garvaghy Park and other areas who previously roamed the area with dogs.  
The Orange Standard, April 1999.

Breandán MacCionnaith is called away for a second time by news of another arrest. Ten minutes earlier, the arrival of MacCionnaith at the scene was sufficient to secure the immediate release of a nationalist child who was being held by the RUC in the back of a jeep. ``The RUC man dragged me into the jeep, `` says seven-year-old Martin, ``and said they were going to put me in a home.'' This time MacCionnaith arrives too late. A 40-year-old resident has been arrested and driven away by the RUC. Local people say he was arrested after he questioned the RUC's failure to stop loyalists throwing stones into the nationalist enclave.

On the Ballyoran Heights, Thomas holds the hand of his four-year-old daughter as he watches the Orange marchers pass by the house where he lives on the street below us. The RUC have told Thomas that they cannot guarantee his safety from loyalist attack before, during or after the parade. So here they must both wait and watch. Thomas speaks with the hesitation of someone living with fear. The child never raises her eyes from the ground. Close by, a man is mowing his garden lawn, and someone else is painting a fence. ``How do you tally the right to live ``free from sectarian harassment'' with this child's experience,'' asks Thomas.

A few hours earlier, another Catholic family had been forced to flee when a loyalist mob erected flags outside their Park Road home. ``If you don't like it get out,'' one of the mob yelled. ``It's like the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross on your front lawn,'' says Thomas. An RUC officer told the residents to leave. The family fled. Later they returned, only to collect their belongings, before joining the 17 other families who have been intimidated out of their street in the last ten months. ``We're refugees in our own town,'' says Thomas.

Pauline has lived all her life in the Garvaghy Road area. Recently married, she now lives just a short distance from Drumcree Church on the outermost rim of the estate. Here, Catholic families are housed right up to the edge of the Drumcree field where tens of thousands of Orangemen gathered and fought pitched battles with the RUC and British army last summer. ``It was terrifying,'' says Pauline. ``We couldn't trust the RUC to keep them out. We lived on our nerves, fearing the area might be overrun, day after day, night after night, expecting the worst.''

The scene as we stand there now is one of rural tranquility. Empty fields, an occasional cow, hedgerows, a narrow lane and a country church. But the image is an illusion. On the other side of the hill the Orange marchers are already on their way. Soon the silence will be filled with the beat of the Lambeg drum.

An Phoblacht
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