Tuesday, September 06, 2005

In a corner of Antrim another generation grows up on a diet of sectarian hatred

Angelique Chrisafis:

It began late one night when Kathleen McCaughey's front door was kicked down by two men who stormed up the stairs shouting: "Taigs out."

"Aren't you going to call me an Orange bastard?" asked one of the men when Mrs McCaughey, 51, who has epilepsy, came out of her bedroom in her dressing gown.

After five months of attacks including petrol and paint bombs and a poster campaign calling her a republican scrounger, she was given a few hours to clear her house and leave the village of Ahoghill in Ian Paisley's North Antrim constituency.

Protestant children had been paid £5 each to sit on her front lawn banging drums until she caved in. If she did not go, she was told, her row of houses would be burned down.

The town of Ballymena and its surrounding villages are in the grip of the worst wave of anti-Catholic sectarian attacks for years and the police have been forced to adopt the same tactics as the UN uses in Kosovo: guarding Catholic churches, schools and Gaelic sports clubs at night to stop them being torched.

Northern Ireland is slipping into the kind of civil strife where people cannot tolerate the presence of their neighbours, and it is being demonstrated at primary schools. Two Catholic schools in the area were burned in arson attacks within 24 hours last week. The head of Northern Ireland's community relations council has said the police patrols are unsustainable, adding that many people would soon start to feel they could only live in Ballymena with UN-style protection.

Ballymena is the buckle in Northern Ireland's Bible belt, the seat of the Paisley family and a place that has been likened to 1960s Mississippi. It is rural, conservative, mainly born-again Christian and predominantly Protestant. Catholics make up about 25% of the borough.

Ballymena's most famous Catholic son, the actor Liam Neeson, has recalled having to shelter inside during Orange parades in his youth.

But Mr Paisley, leader of the biggest unionist party in Northern Ireland, was criticised for not condemning the anti-Catholic attacks soon enough and doing little to engage with his community to stop them.

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