Author forced into hiding condemns official blind eye to British loyalist attacks
Alison Mitchell reacts in panic as a man in a leather jacket looms outside her window. 'Is the door locked?' she calls to her husband, Gary. 'Check if it is locked!' she pleads as the figure approaches.
It is a tense moment, which dissipates only when the stranger is revealed to be a postman. Alison remains agitated - and with good reason. The couple have been living at a secret location in Northern Ireland since last November after their Belfast home was attacked by a mob incensed by the plays Gary Mitchell had written. His best known - the BBC drama As the Beast Sleeps, screened in 2001 - revealed how young Protestants were coping with life before and after the loyalist ceasefires. Local youths were not amused.
Now, in his first interview since the attack, Mitchell reveals what has happened to his family in the aftermath: their seven-year-old son, Harry, is so traumatised he spends most days in his bedroom and has had to take time off from school; Alison rarely goes beyond the door; and Gary cannot return to the house they still own on the northern outskirts of Belfast.
'I was sitting in the living-room with my father watching Rangers play Porto live on television when it happened,' Mitchell, a former playwright-in-residence at the National Theatre, says. 'My wife heard noises, looked out and started screaming: "They're attacking our car, they're trying to get into the house." She phoned the police and hid in the back of the house. By the time I got the front door open, they had already gone. They had pulled the car doors apart and thrown petrol bombs into it.'
On the same night the homes of Mitchell's uncle and niece were attacked in Rathcoole, a stronghold of loyalist paramilitaries. Police estimate that 32 people took part in three co-ordinated attacks on the wider Mitchell family.
The Mitchells were attacked for two reasons: first, there has been growing resentment in Rathcoole about Gary's exploration of Ulster loyalism and its identity crisis. Secondly, the loyalist paramilitary groups have begun to fragment.
Detectives have recently identified 'rogue paramilitaries' at Rathcoole - where Mitchell used to live - who don't answer to either the Ulster Volunteer Force or Ulster Defence Association leadership. They deal in drugs, picket Catholic families trying to visit graves at nearby Carnmoney Cemetery, and killed a doorman at a north Belfast nightclub because he refused to let them sell cocaine and ecstasy on the premises.
Mitchell admits he has 'history' with some of this renegade gang. In 1997 when he won a Dublin-based award for new writing, he was branded a traitor. 'They would stop you in the street, ask you what you were doing in Dublin and accuse you of selling out.' The 40-year-old writer eventually left Rathcoole the next year, after a campaign of intimidation. He returned for his grandmother's funeral in November. 'They (the gang) sent a message that I was banned from Rathcoole and had defied them, but I never even knew there was a ban.'
After eight weeks of hiding Mitchell, who has been commissioned to write two new screenplays for Channel 4, finds it puzzling that his family's plight has not become a national issue. 'When I go over to work in London most of the people you meet, even after what has happened to us, say "Oh Gary, isn't it lovely that you now have peace." BBC Northern Ireland told me I wouldn't be working with them any more unless I wrote about the peace process and it would have to be positive. So I told them, "No, you won't be working with me."How could I write a positive drama about the peace process when terrorists are blowing up my car?
'As for England, you're a second-class citizen if you don't come from London or Metro-land. If I was a Muslim writer whose work upset members of my community so much that some were threatening to kill me, then it would be a cause celebre. There would be questions in parliament, writers would stage protests and Salman Rushdie would write letters of support. But because this is Northern Ireland what's happening to my family isn't part of the peace process narrative.'
Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, offered Mitchell and his family some comfort just before Christmas - an invite to a drinks reception at Hillsborough Castle. But the playwright says that the invite spectacularly backfired.
'When we arrived at Hillsborough there were senior loyalist paramilitary figures drinking and eating in the same room. It was insensitive of the Northern Ireland Office to invite a family who were victims of loyalist intimidation to a function where loyalist leaders were in attendance.'
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