Monday, August 22, 2005

Leighton's U-turn on sectarian onslaught

Maeve Connolly:

The deputy chief constable has made an apparent U-turn and confirmed that all attacks on Catholics in a Co Antrim village were sectarian.

The senior officer, who is understood to be in charge of policing at the moment as the chief constable is on leave, had provoked outrage when he suggested disputes between neighbours were partly responsible for the recent wave of violence.

Pat McGaughey, whose family is moving out of Ahoghill after their home was targeted by paint bombers earlier this week, said she was "shocked and angry" at Mr Leighton's comments.

However, in a letter to Ballymena SDLP councillor Declan O'Loan following demands for clarification of the officer's remarks, Mr Leighton wrote: "There is no question the attacks are all of a sectarian nature and only in some do other, lesser factors, feature."

He stated that sectarianism "is the fundamental issue in the Ahoghill attacks as it is in other attacks in Ballymena".

In his letter, Mr Leighton also said that actions rather than words would reassure people in the area.

The apparent U-turn came as police mounted a massive security operation in the neighbouring village of Rasharkin last night (Friday) for a major loyalist parade.

Mr O'Loan, chair of Ballymena's District Policing Partnership welcomed Mr Leighton's correspondence, adding he had sought advice from those "close to the situation" about the validity of the officer's initial comments.

"They dismissed them out of hand," he added.

Speaking to the media in Ahogill on Wednesday, Mr Leighton had said sectarianism was "an element" of a campaign against Catholic residents but people "not getting on with each other" was also a factor.

He also disagreed with claims that loyalists are engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, saying that it was "much more serious".

"There is real hatred between communities in Northern Ireland," he said.

More than 1,200 loyalists paraded through the predominantly nationalist Co Antrim village of Rasharkin last night amid a tight police presence.

Around 60 nationalists staged a protest as up to 46 bands, some with UDA and UVF connections marched through the tension-filled village.

Police jeeps, some fitted with camera recording equipment, swarmed the area and it is understood water cannon was on standby to deal with any trouble.

Sinn Féin councillor Daithi McKay, said: "Given the present environment of sectarian attacks on Catholics and nationalists in north Antrim, this was the last thing needed here."

The march came just hours after a number of Catholic businesses and homes in north Antrim area were attacked, which police are treating as sectarian.

Windows were smashed in two houses and two pubs during the early hours of yesterday at Finvoy Road and Gortnahar Road near Ballymoney, in Rasharkin's Main Street and Lisnahuncheon Road in Portglenone.

Mr McKay said the violence was designed to intimidate nationalists ahead of the parade.

However, North Antrim DUP assembly member Ian Paisley Jnr blamed republicans for "fanning" hostilities.

"I believe and have confidence a greater sense will prevail and that people will stand back from escalating this tension into violence," he said.

Also yesterday, police raided homes and searched open ground in Ballymena. No arrests were made but a number of items were removed for examination.

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