5 April 2001 Edition
Castlewellan nationalists targeted by RUC
Sectarian raids and arrests upset families
BY LAURA FRIEL
The Brannigan family were in bed and asleep when the front door of their Kilcoo home was smashed open with a sledgehammer and a man armed with a machine gun ran upstairs. On the top landing the man put the gun to Peter Brannigan's head and shouted, ``don't move or I'll blow you're fucking head off.''
A beam of light from a torch held in the man's other hand shone into Peter's face. The man repeatedly poked the muzzle of his gun into the side of Peter's head while threatening to kill him. Awakened from their sleep, Peter's three children stood at the door of their bedroom and witnessed the terror of their father's ordeal.
``The light was shining full into my face and at first I couldn't see anything, just the shadow of a man and the feel of the weapon at my head. I thought it must be a loyalist attack,'' says Peter. A few moments later, Peter realised his assailant was a member of the RUC. ``I could see the shadow of his cap and realised it was the RUC,'' says Peter.
Peter, still naked from the waist upwards, was dragged downstairs with the muzzle of the gun still in the side of his head. ``It was clear that I was no threat at all,'' says Peter, ``but the RUC man kept the machine gun to my head.''
Another member of the raiding party ran into the Brannigans' bedroom and grabbed a pair of trousers. Anne tried to gather the rest of her husband's clothes but the RUC wouldn't allow her out of the bedroom. ``He hadn't even a shirt or a jumper,'' says Anne.
Peter was arrested under emergency legislation and taken to Gough Barracks. ``As I left the house, I saw dozens of British soldiers, some with the red berets of the Parachute Regiment. The area was swamped with them. It all made no sense.'' It was shortly after 7am on Thursday 29 March.
The RUC raided the house for about two hours. During the raid the front and back doors of the family home were smashed, security locks were broken and a map was drawn of the house.
A short distance away in Burrenwood Park, the Smith family were awakened by the sound of someone hammering the front door. It was 7.05am and the family were still in bed. ``There were about ten heavily armed RUC officers at my front door,'' says John. ``Outside, there was about half a dozen Land Rovers carrying British soldiers and a helicopter overhead.''
When Ann opened the front door the RUC raiding party ran into the house. ``They ran into my teenage daughter's bedroom while she was still in bed,'' says Ann. The couple's two children are both profoundly deaf. ``Leona can lip read a little but Conal cannot and I didn't want them frightened,'' says Ann.
``One RUC man tried to question my daughter. He asked her if she was deaf. He said, `are you deaf and is he?' referring to Conal. I told him I didn't want anyone questioning the children and then he left them alone.''
The family were told that the house was going to be searched but when John asked to accompany the raiding party he was told, ``you're accompanying fucking nobody, you're under arrest.'' John was taken to Gough barracks.
The Smith home was raided for two hours. Details of security measures within the house were scrutinised and a map of the inside layout of the house drawn.
A few hundred yards away, Oonagh Brogan and her six children were still sleeping when the RUC burst into her home. It was around 7am and her husband Martin had left the house just ten minutes earlier.
Two RUC men armed with rifles ran into one of the bedrooms where two of the Brogans' young children were sleeping. ``They were very frightened,'' says Martin. The Brogans' eldest child is eleven and the youngest six years of age. One of their children, a seven-year-old is autistic.
``My wife is too distressed to speak about her ordeal,'' says Martin. ``During the raid the RUC smashed a religious picture and I don't mean it was accidentally dropped. It was a deliberately provocative sectarian act and Oonagh was very upset.''
A couple of streets away, Bernie Shields and her 89-year-old mother were also asleep when the RUC arrived at their front door. It was 7am. ``My mother is very elderly and can easily become confused,'' says Bernie, ``she hadn't slept well and I didn't want to waken her.'' Bernie is a nurse.
``The RUC insisted on searching her room,'' says Bernie. Bernie had recently moved out of her family home after it was attacked by loyalists. In January 1999 Patsy and Bernie were in the kitchen of their isolated Loughinisland home when a blast bomb placed outside the back door exploded.
All the windows at the back of the house were shattered and Patsy sustained injuries to his hand and lower body. Bernie escaped unhurt but the couple, who had been targeted for repeated Crown force harassment in the run up to the attack, no longer felt safe enough to stay on their family farm. Last year Bernie moved into Castlewellan town.
``My husband still stays at the farm,'' says Bernie, ``but he wasn't there last Thursday morning.'' The Shields' Loughinisland farm was unoccupied when the RUC raiding party arrived between 7am and 8am.
Patsy Shields returned after being alerted by a neighbour to find the front, back and internal doors smashed and his home ransacked. ``The RUC did more damage than the loyalist bombers,'' says Patsy. ``The place had been turned upside down.''
Meanwhile, in Gough barracks, Peter Brannigan and John Smith were not being questioned. ``The RUC were simply going through the motions,'' says John. ``I arrived at Gough after 8am and I was held until around 5pm but I was only interviewed for about 20 minutes. I was told I had been arrested in relation to a bombing on Hallowe'en night in which an RUC man had been injured but the RUC weren't serious about questioning me.''
Peter Brannigan was also held in Gough until 5pm. He was questioned only for a few minutes before being released. Peter believes his arrest and the raid on his home are connected to a series of harassment cases he has recently taken against the RUC and UDR.
John Smith believes his arrest and the raid were even more sinister. ``Last time my home was raided by the RUC in 1993, the house was attacked by loyalists a short time later,'' says John. ``The RUC paid particular attention to the security measures in the house. We are fearful this raid is another prelude to a loyalist attack.''
Renewed Antrim attacks
After a lull of a number of weeks, loyalist bombers have renewed their attacks on Catholic families in the Antrim area. Over the weekend, the homes of two Catholic families, living in Birchill Park and the Springfarm Estate, respectively, were targeted.
In the first incident, a man who had been living in the predominantly loyalist Birchill Park area for over 20 years vowed to leave his home. The man, who didn't want to be identified, said that he and his two grown up sons had been living away from the house after masked gunmen threatened and assaulted them a couple of weeks ago.
The last straw came for him when a petrol bomb was thrown through the upstairs window of the house in the early hours of Sunday morning 1 April, causing damage to a bedroom. At the time of the petrol bombing the house was unoccupied, as the man and his sons had moved in with relatives as they waited to be rehoused.
Just 24 hours earlier, a Catholic family of six living on the Springfarm estate was the target of loyalist arsonists, who pushed lighted paper through a window. Alerted by their fire alarm, the family, including a heavily pregnant woman and children aged six and three, were able to make their escape. The pregnant woman, however, was injured as she climbed out of a downstairs window. Although admitted to hospital for observation, she was discharged on Sunday.
Sinn Féin representative for the Antrim area, Martin Meehan, said the reality for Catholics in the area was that they were living under the constant threat of loyalist attacks.
``Loyalist gangs have been involved in a systematic campaign of intimidation in an attempt to drive Catholics from the town,'' said Meehan.