Thursday, June 09, 2005

Sectarian attacks now a daily danger in the north of Ireland

Anne Cadwallader:

Figures recorded by police in Northern Ireland for the first time show that sectarian attacks are taking place at an average of two a day, and the true figure may be far higher.

From last September to March 2005, a total of 339 sectarian incidents were reported to police. If the figures are broken down, 172 were recorded from October to December 2004, and 163 for the first three months of this year.

The figures for sectarian incidents, already high, could get worse as the zenith of the loyalist summer marching season approaches.

Despite decades of conflict, police have only started compiling a formal record of all sectarian incidents.

They can range from taunts, abuse, assaults and bomb attacks on both sides of the community.

The PSNI said the number of charges brought in relation to the sectarian incidents was not available. The "clearance" rate for such crimes remains low, even dropping by one per cent over the year to just 15. percent.

Two observers warn the latest figures were only the tip of the iceberg. Paul O'Connor of the Pat Finucane Center said: "It is shocking that the reported level is so high but the reality is the actual level remains even higher as so much goes unreported."

UUP Policing Board member Fred Cobain commented: "We haven't even scratched the surface of sectarianism yet, nor are we tackling it in any strategic way."

Meanwhile, Diane Hamill, sister of murdered Catholic Robert Hamill, has urged police to co-operate fully with a major public inquiry into his killing by a sectarian mob. The 25-year-old victim was beaten by frenzied loyalists yards from an RUC patrol.

The tribunal will examine allegations that police officers ignored the attack in Portadown, Co. Armagh eight years ago, and if detectives failed to carry out a proper investigation by carrying out arrests and securing the scene of crime.

After the opening session, Hamill told how her family had put their trust in the inquiry, stressing that witnesses need to reveal everything they know.

"We would especially like to appeal to any police officers, serving or retired, who have information about that night", she said.

If they had information on the "botched police investigation", she said, they should "come forward, examine your conscience and do the right thing. We just want to know why Robert was allowed to be murdered within feet of four fully armed RUC officers."

The inquiry team disclosed that they have already secretly scoured Portadown and also plan to examine the police Land Rover used by the patrol under suspicion.

Chairman Sir Edwin Jowitt said the probe will try to establish if police could have done more to prevent the father of three's death.

Evidence will be studied to assess whether any failure or omission on the part of officers to halt the attack, identify the killers or properly investigate the murder, was deliberate or negligent, the retired High Court judge said.

"We are very conscious of the many emotions to which the death of Robert Hamill has given rise and we repeat that our over-riding concern in this inquiry will be to do all we can to ascertain where the truth lies concerning the issues raised by our terms of reference," Jowitt said.

Hamill was set upon by loyalists as he walked home from a night out in his native Portadown. He died in hospital 11 days later, never regaining consciousness. Six men were accused of the murder, but charges were dropped against five. The sixth was acquitted of murder and sentenced to four years for affray.

Report cites blind eye to loyalist marchers


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