Monday, February 25, 2008

Between a rock, a hard place and a Stonyford

Yet more evidence of the fragility of the St. Andrews agreement and its inability to provide a solution to the endemic sectarianism of the Northern statelet was provided by the departure of a Catholic family from Stoneyford, just outside Belfast.

The family were the latest victims of a long campaign of ethnic cleansing organised by local loyalists – a campaign so blatant that the organiser is a minor celeb, known by name to the press, political activists and many members of the public across the North. The latest campaign culminated in a death threat against the young son in the family and a threat that their home would be bombed.

The reactions of local politicians reflected their role in the sectarian set-up. Jeffrey Donaldson, confronted with this coercion, washed his hands of it. Apparently the family had had the cheek to suggest that DUP supporters were involved in the intimidation.

The local RUC/PSNI expressed regret. Despite the threats extending over many years in a small village, with the leading perpetrator publicly known, they had been unable to obtain any leads.

Perhaps the most pathetic response was from the local Sinn Fein representative, Paul Butler. Pleading with the police to ‘do their job’ he might have been any nationalist politician from the original Stormont parliament or from the generations before that.

But it is not enough to observe these events. It is necessary to understand them and to do that you have to observe the context. The context of the various interviews that took place was the background of a new build housing development bedecked with Union flags and loyalist regalia. It was pretty evident that these were warnings to Catholics not to settle here.

No-one asked who had erected the flags. No-one suggested that the symbols of sectarian hate be taken down. Despite all the rhetoric the new society, the new police force, are not disposed to repress loyalist bigotry or protect the victims.

For all that the PSNI are not exactly the RUC. The RUC would have advised the Catholics to go. It was a single RUC station that, along with the local loyalists, emptied Rathcoole of its large Catholic population in the ‘70s – an episode of ethnic cleansing that, for the size of population, ranks with major historic episodes in Europe.

In the new society everyone has some sectarian rights (not equal ones of course). Sectarian intimidation is simply someone expressing their culture and the task of the police is conflict resolution. So it is not surprising that, when a Catholic priest took down a flag nailed outside his church, he was advised to return it. When a father complained that his dead son’s name had been raised on an Orange bonfire as a sectarian taunt, he was advised to see community relations. It is hardly surprising that the police in Stoneyford organised a meeting between the Catholic victims and the chief loyalist intimidator. Perhaps the answer in another grant for loyalist groups or the Orange order – maybe funnelled through the Irish government or the president?

The situation in the North is kept stable by the willingness of Sinn Fein to accept anything that is thrown at them and by a tremendous complacency on the part of their constituency. It is not a stability that can last forever. When it wears off the Provo supporters will want to know why Sinn Fein, through the policing boards, are party to a system that placates loyalist thugs and turns a blind eye to sectarian intimidation.

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