AP front 1 - 2022

6 June 2002 Edition

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Short Strand attacked again

A 400-strong loyalist mob engaged in a standoff, reminiscent of Drumcree, on the edge of Short Strand, a nationalist enclave in the predominantly loyalist east Belfast, on Wednesday, the sixth day of attack on the area. In full view of the British Army and RUC/PSNI personnel, a masked loyalist drove a hijacked lorry to blockade the Newtownards Road.

Earlier that morning, after the first relatively quiet night in almost a week, nationalists attempting to collect pensions, child benefit and welfare from their local post office had their path blocked by around a hundred loyalists, including many women. An elderly man and his three-year-old granddaughter were among a number of Short Strand Catholics who suffered sectarian abuse as access to the post office was denied by the mob.

People from the Short Strand were also prevented from attending the chemist on Newtownards Road, the doctor's surgery on Madrid Street as well as the post office on the Albertbridge Road. The Health Depatment was forced to issue emergency perscriptions and alternative medical provision was arranged.

A short time later, a loyalist mob attacked mourners during a funeral Mass at the local St Matthew's Catholic Chapel. Pallbearers carrying the coffin were forced to retreat back into the chapel and the burial was delayed for over an hour with mourners under siege by the mob. Loyalists threw bricks, stones and bottles at the chapel during the attack and a number of mourners, including children, required hospital treatment. The family of the deceased woman was described as extremely distressed at the incident.

Sinn Féin Councillor Joe O'Donnell said the actions of the loyalist blockaders and their attack on a funeral was aimed at further heightening tensions in what was already a volatile situation.

Speaking at a Belfast press conference, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams called for an intervention to bring an end to the violence in East Belfast.

"We can speculate about the agendas within unionism, loyalism, within the securocrats or even within the British establishment," said Adams. "But whatever the agenda, the violence still must stop.

"I have spoken to the British Secretary of State John Reid, to PUP leader David Ervine, the Taoiseach's Department, Joe O'Donnell and other councillors. I have asked for a meeting with David Ervine and I will be speaking to the Taoiseach.

"We want to facilitate dialogue. We believe that there must be an intervention across civic society. This means church leaders, community leaders, trade unionists and politicians not sitting back and being spectators but working to bring this to an end."


Short Strand in flames


UVF engineers fresh


A man appears through a cloud of acrid black smoke and erupts. "Did you see that?" he demands. "Did you get that down?" He is clearly upset and the sight of my notebook momentarily becomes the focus of his frustration and despair. "Yes," I reply. "I was here, I saw what happened."

Moments before, the front door and small courtyard entrance of his house had been engulfed in flames. First there was a loud thud and then a rumble as a bottle filled with inflammable liquid hit the house and rolled off the roof.

Another bottle of liquid had smashed close to my feet in the doorway of a neighbouring house. In quick succession, three or four petrol bombs were thrown over the wall, igniting the pathway, doorway and front of one house.

For a few minutes, the flames and heat had been intense and the smoke dense. A colleague standing just a couple of feet away sought refuge beside a wall, while our photographer pushed through the undergrowth in an attempt to catch the assailants on camera.

"But will you write what you saw?" insists the man. "This is not retaliation, these are pensioners' bungalows and we're under siege.

"I'm beginning to think journalists are just liars," he adds. His tone is despondent rather than confrontational.

And who could blame him. The nationalist community in this small, isolated district has been under constant attack now for almost three days and the media coverage has been nothing short of scandalous.

The path along Strand Walk is narrow and overhung with lines of bushes and trees, encased on either side by walls and railings. This narrow buffer zone runs between one edge of the Short Strand, a nationalist enclave in predominantly loyalist east Belfast, and the main Newtownards Road.

Several times in recent weeks, An Phoblacht has travelled to the Strand to photograph homes damaged in loyalist attacks on this secluded row of houses designed for the elderly and disabled.

It was mid morning on the Monday of the British monarchy's jubilee and at the time of the attack the three of us were on the street alone. Constant loyalist attack has rendered the housing in Strand Walk almost derelict. Smashed roofing tiles, gaping holes, boarded up and grilled windows extend along the entire row.

In broad daylight and in full view of a British Army vehicle parked along the dual carriageway, a sudden attack by a gang of masked loyalists had taken the three of us by surprise. But the shock wasn't as great as the realisation that there are families still living amongst this devastation.

Homes that moments before had appeared abandoned and empty suddenly burst into life as neighbours rushed out of their front doors with bowls of water and a fire extinguisher to quench the flames.

The door of the house that had taken the brunt of this attack opened and a man, probably in his sixties, emerged to survey the damage and rile against his family's fate. Fear, anger and despair fill his voice with emotion. "We're going to be killed here," said Pat Boyd.

Gerry Johnson, the 73-year-old pensioner who lives in another house, said he had been sitting in the living room when a petrol bomb hit the window grill. "I thought it was stone and then I saw the flames," he said.

"Every house in this row has window grilles fitted and now people are hanging garden hoses over their roofs so we can put out petrol bombs when we're attacked," said Gerry. "Some neighbours have already moved out but others have nowhere else to go. We're all pensioners and just want a quiet life."

A few moments later and a wider cross section of the Short Strand community was mobilised. In the street behind Strand Walk, neighbours gathered, fearing the attack might be a prelude to a larger loyalist incursion.

The crowd appeared amazingly ill prepared to defend itself. The media's portrayal of the problem as 'rival sectarian gangs' bore no resemblance to the people gathered here. No one was carrying so much as a hurl, baseball bat or even an umbrella.

Some people were still wearing their pyjamas and slippers. Parents were standing with their children. Everyone watched and waited. In less than an hour everyone dispersed but with the certain knowledge that it was only a matter of time before the loyalists would return.

Earlier that morning, in the Clandeboye area of the Short Strand, a resident had described the sustained loyalist brick and petrol bomb attack on her home and the homes of her neighbours.

It began on Friday night. While Stand Walk is on the northern edge of the estate, Clandeboye stands to the east. The houses in Clandeboye back onto a high brick 'peace' wall topped with steel railings. Here nationalist Short Strand meets a private and newly built housing development, Langdon Court.

The developers had advertised the properties as luxury apartments and the mainly young and middle-income first time buyers appear to have been unaware they were moving into an interface area.

There is no history of trouble between the residents of Langdon Court and families living in the adjacent Clandeboye. Indeed, the people of Clandeboye regard Langdon Court as 'mixed' rather than loyalist and the residents as young working professionals with no political axe to grind.

But on Friday night, loyalist paramilitaries moved in. "We know the people living there by sight and would occasionally speak to some of them," said a Clandeboye resident, "but on Friday night the faces looking down from the windows at us weren't the people we know as living there."

Another Clandeboye resident described "loyalists driving into Langdon Court". Media reports said the residents of Langdon Court had been 'evacuated' to a local church hall.

Maggie McDowell was standing at the back of her house when loyalists from Cluan Place began to pelt her home and garden with bricks and bottles.

As Maggie took cover by standing with her back to the peace wall, a petrol bomb crashed onto the roof of her home, smashing tiles and threatening to set her loft on fire. As more petrol bombs rained down, Maggie ran to safety through an alleyway at the side of her house.

"They started attacking our homes on Friday night with pipe bombs, stones and petrol bombs and they didn't stop the whole weekend," said Maggie. Broken roof tiles, fire scorched walls and a back garden covered with debris stand as testimony to Maggie's description of the sustained attack on her home and family.

"This is like Bombay Street all over again. They are trying to burn us out of our own homes just like they did in 1969," she said.

Sean McVeigh wasn't at home but his wife and ten-year-old daughter were, when his home first came under attack on Friday evening. The windows of his home are now boarded up, as are all the windows along this row of houses.

The street is littered with the debris of hours of loyalist bombardment. Stones, broken bricks and smashed bottles carpet the ground. A small girl shows us a doctored firework strapped with nails and with a fuse attached at the top that had been thrown by loyalists. This one failed to ignite but dozens more exploded, scattering shrapnel.

"No one here wants any trouble," said Sean. "Most of us own our homes. Any broken windows and damage to our homes, we pay for the repairs. Why would anyone here instigate trouble?"

In the last three days, Sean has been unable to sleep except for a few hours. His wife and children were forced to stay with relatives over the weekend.

"We can't send our children to school in their uniforms because they would be too easily identified as Catholics," said Sean. "And we can't let them sleep here at night because we're afraid of what might happen."

Sean described his neighbours as supporting the peace process. "We bought our homes following the Good Friday Agreement," he says. "We were so optimistic about the future here."

But Sean's optimism faded with the arrival of hundreds of loyalists at the weekend. "There were crowds of up to 300 loyalists coming from outside the area into Cluan Place to stone our houses," he said.

"This isn't coming from the ordinary residents of Cluan Place. They are mostly pensioners. This is an orchestrated and sustained loyalist attack." Sean rejects media claims that nationalists provoked loyalist 'retaliation'.

"There are only 3,000 nationalists in the Short Strand, the majority of whom are pensioners or under 25," said Sean. "We're surrounded on all sides; who in their right mind would think of starting trouble?"

On Sunday afternoon the focus of the loyalist onslaught switched to the Albertbridge Road and the southern edge of the nationalist estate. Around 50 loyalist paramilitaries, dressed in what local people have described as semi-uniforms, marched down and lined up along Albertbridge Road.

Sinn Féin Councillor Joe O'Donnell says he is has no doubt that the attacks are being orchestrated by the UVF. "Loyalists are moving their attacks from one part of the estate to the next so that no one knows where the next attack is going to come from," says Joe.

O'Donnell says rivalry between the UDA and UVF underpins the loyalist offensive. "The UVF are opening up a new interface to counteract the growth of the UDA in North Belfast," says Joe. "As in the past, rivalry between loyalists is being played out through sectarian attacks on Catholics. The lives and property of the people of the Short Strand are expendable pawns in a loyalist game."


The violence must stop


Interviewed by the Irish Times about the recent upsurge in violence in East Belfast, DUP Assembly member Sammy Wilson blamed "well known republicans" for orchestrating the violence, claiming their objective was "to drive people out of Protestant areas and take them over".

The Short Strand is a nationalist enclave of less than 3,000 people, a high proportion of whom are pensioners and children. A Protestant population of over 60,000 surrounds the district. The geography of the enclave, bounded by major roadways and permanent security walls, renders expansion impossible.

Indeed, the redevelopment of the Strand in the 1980s was accompanied by a sharp decline in the nationalist population in East Belfast, as housing was given over to roads. A nationalist population that was at one time around 9,000 now stands at a mere 3,000.

Even the most cursory glance at these simple facts would be sufficient to dispute the nonsensical claims by Sammy Wilson and other unionist apologists for loyalist sectarian violence. Instead, such nonsense is constantly repeated in the media. "Territory," writes Gerry Moriarty, "centrally that is what these vicious, sectarian days and nights of violence were about."

And then we have 'balance'. Like many mainstream journalists, Moriarty appears to believe that the 'neutral' status of the professional journalist is best served by a notion of 'balance' in which each claim is accompanied by a counter claim.

"Nationalists argue that loyalists are trying to force them from their homes," writes Moriarty. "Loyalists claim that nationalists are trying to encroach into 'their' terrain."

Moriarty forgoes the right as a journalist to make a judgement based upon the facts as they present themselves and opts for the safety of representing all 'views'. It is a method in which everything becomes unknowable. It is the antithesis of informed understanding and in the ensuing confusion ordinary people caught up in real events are left to pay the price of this ambiguity.

This current eruption of violence in East Belfast began on Friday evening and to date has continued for six consecutive days. During this period nationalists' homes on the interface have been bombarded with thousands of bricks, stones and bottles. They have also been attacked by petrol bombs, blast bombs and pipe bombs and by fireworks packed with shrapnel.

Over the last six days, loyalist gunmen have opened fire at least five times, the British army and PSNI have fired at least six gunshots and over 60 plastic bullets have been fired. A number of shots have been fired on two occasions from within the Short Strand.

Hand to hand fighting has broken out on a number of occasions, sometimes involving over a thousand people. Around 50 families have applied to be rehoused; many more have sought temporary refuge with relatives living outside East Belfast.

It would be foolish to suggest that there has been no reciprocal violence, or even that all actions emanating from the nationalist community have been retaliatory. It would be nonsense to suggest that ordinary Protestant residents, some of whom will also be pensioners and children, who have been caught up in the violence, haven't suffered. It would be immoral to imply that their experience of suffering is any the less significant or less worthy of being addressed.

But that doesn't mean we must collapse our understanding of what's happening into platitudes. The nationalist community of the Short Strand is under siege and the physical evidence is there for everyone to see.

It's there in the row after row of smashed windows. The ferocity of the bombardment is evidenced in the hundreds of broken roofing tiles and the carpet of debris left in its wake. It's in the fire damage and scorch marks. It's there in the abandoned homes.

And last but not least, it is evident in the testimonies of the families who live there - in the sleepless nights of worried parents and anxious children who can't wear their school uniform for fear of being identified as a Catholic on the way to school.


An Phoblacht
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