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27 July 2000 Edition

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How do you teach a nationalist child he's a second class citizen?

by Laura Friel

There's a small grassy square between a nationalist housing estate at the top of North Belfast's Cliftonville Road and the predominantly loyalist Torrens area. In the harsh urban landscape of terraced housing and back yards, this small green area provides the only relief from tarmac, concrete and brick.

Known locally as `the field',as inadequate and underdeveloped as it is, this modest plot provides the only possible recreational area in a crowded estate of families with children.

On a summer evening in the middle of the school vacation, it would be reasonable to expect groups of children, playing football perhaps, or simply making the most of the end of a sunny day playing on the grass. But the field is empty.

A few months ago there would have been children from the local nationalist estate playing on the green but with the onset of this year's Orange marching season, there has been a concerted attempt to deny them access .

Just a couple of yards directly facing the green, children, mostly of primary school age, are skipping and playing tag in the confines of a tarmac square at the back of a row of terrace houses. The square is surrounded by a high iron railed fence

Spotting the camera as we approach a small group of girls press their faces between the railings , ``take a photo of us,'' they call, ``take a photo of us.'' A local teenager returns the banter, ``we don't want to break the camera,'' he shouts. Losing interest, the children return to their games and the unrelenting heat and dust of their compound.

And we're here to photograph this empty field, its low brick wall which separates it from nationalist houses at the bottom. And at the far right hand side, the British and loyalist flags which signal the beginning of the Torrens estate. As we stand there a couple of men appear at the edge of the loyalist estate.

``We'd better walk back,'' says one of the residents standing with us. ``It's full grown men and women,'' says a resident, ``if any of our children are spotted playing on the grass, they run down the field screaming at them , waving iron bars and sticks and throwing bottles and bricks.''

One woman, waving a stick above her head, shouted ``get those fenian bastards off our field'', says a resident, ``I just don't understand their mentality.'' And it's not just local loyalists, gangs of men from other loyalist estates, Westland, Rathcoole and Sunningdale, have all lent their support to this sectarian campaign of intimidation.

Last Saturday residents from the Torrens area organised a `fun day' for their children on the green. The RUC warned nationalist residents to stay away. If anyone as much as puts a foot in that field they would be arrested, the RUC had said. Children sitting on a nearby curb at the end of their street were told they would be charged with obstruction if they didn't move away.

It must have been like rubbing salt into a wound, but nationalist residents decided to stay away. When trouble over the field first started local nationalist residents had set up a committee to co ordinate their response. Attempts by the committee to open formal contacts with residents in Torrens have been repeatedly spurned.

Committee members agreed that their children would only play on the field under adult supervision. Local teenagers were asked by the committee to give an undertaking not to engage in any reciprocal stone throwing. ``We just didn't want to go down that road,'' says a resident.[p]

By 6pm on Saturday night the Torrens `fun day' had ended and the field was empty. Later that evening a small group of nationalist teenagers, all around 14 years of age, went onto the field to play a game of football. Within minutes they were confronted by an angry loyalist mob, wielding iron bars and heavy sticks.

``My daughter ran into the house crying that Orangemen were threatening them at the field,'' says Michelle. At the green the RUC had already appeared in force. Michelle arrived just in time to see her 14 year old son, Eamon, being beaten by the RUC.

``One RUC man was holding him by the throat while a gang of around six or seven RUC officers were beating him with batons, kicking him and hitting him with their fists,'' says Michelle. Eamon fell to the ground and the beating continued.

``I was so desperate,'' says Michelle, ``I threw myself on top of Eamon in an attempt to protect him.'' Michelle was batoned and then Eamon was thrown into the back of a jeep. At 14 years of age, Eamon is a minor and can be accompanied by a parent while under arrest. Michelle insisted on travelling in the jeep. ``I wasn't going to leave him,'' she says.

Eamon was taken to Antrim Road RUC barracks and charged with riotous behaviour and resisting arrest. At the barracks, the teenager was examined by a doctor and his injuries recorded. He was released shortly before midnight.

This is not the first time Eamon has been the target of RUC harassment. Earlier this year the RUC claimed to have video evidence of Eamon rioting. It was not true and charges against Eamon were dropped. His parents made a formal complaint against the RUC.

But since the complaint RUC harassment has continued. ``Yesterday Eamon saw an RUC officer pointing him out to other RUC men,'' says Michelle, ``he came home very upset. He thinks the RUC are out to get him now.''

So how do you teach a nationalist child he's a second class citizen? If you're a loyalist bigot you don't have to, the RUC will do it for you.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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