Irish Republican News · August 17, 2004
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
IRISH REPUBLICAN NEWS: Repression in Rathenraw
Repression in Rathenraw

By Anthony McIntyre (for the Blanket)

To many of us who live in Belfast, the Rathenraw Estate in Antrim town for long conjured up the image of a drugs bazaar where various substances were bought and sold on the open market. It had the feel of a mini-Amsterdam. In recent years a vigorous community response has changed Rathenraw completely. The transformation there has been more than a mere face-lift. Talking to the residents who live there, a strong vibrancy and confidence is exuded. Once the estate to escape from it has become a sought after place of residency for many families eager to ensure their young grow up free from the menace of serious drug abuse. Of the numerous residents I have spoken to over the past month none dissented from the view that Sinn Féin played a major role in the clean-up campaign. A large measure of the party’s electoral success in Antrim town and the surrounding area can be explained by the hard work put in on the ground and in particular the zero tolerance displayed towards drug dealers.

In Rathenraw, many of those people who were at the coal face of community activism, now find themselves seriously at odds with the party on whose behalf they laboured so strenuously. In fact the entire Rathenaw Sinn Féin cumann has resigned. Some of those who stepped outside of the tent had given much of their time and energy to promoting republican politics. In the case of Paddy Murray who chaired the cumann, most of the 1990s imprisoned did little to subdue his commitment to the political vision that drives him. Aine Gribbon, a mother of eight, was a three times candidate for the party in local council elections.

Having made many trips to the estate over the past month in response to requests by residents who felt they were voiceless, I quickly detected the frustration experienced by people who were convinced they were being given grossly inadequate political representation by the two Sinn Féin politicians on Antrim Council. From house to house, the message was the same - ‘useless.’ This held true for Sinn Féin voters, former party members and residents with no party affiliations, alike.

Underlying tension between Rathenraw republicans and the Sinn Féin bureaucracy first exploded when a local republican band was prevented from taking part in a South Armagh hunger strike commemoration in May. It was accused of having a reputation for being ‘rowdy.’ New Sinn Féin, wanting to appear respectable, decided that much of its previous earthy character would have to be jettisoned. The response of the Rathenraw cumann was to resign.

Since then, the former cumann members have claimed that in a bid to isolate and undermine them, the two local councillors and unelected party apparatchiks have engaged in a campaign of vilification. When the estate was subjected to sectarian attack, the former party members who rallied to its defence were accused by their former colleagues of having provoked the loyalists. Since then they have been described as gang leaders and ‘Fagin’ type characters.

In recent weeks the campaign against Rathenraw republicans was intensified and extended to community workers. This has culminated in committee members of the Rathenraw Community Association, a democratically constituted body, being intimidated and told to stand down from the committee.

What for long may have been a manageable tension suddenly exploded into serious confrontation in the wake of a planned PSNI operation which led to the interception of a car leaving the estate in which a large consignment of drugs was discovered. The Community Association was aghast. Its community image promotion campaign had sustained a considerable dent. The person arrested allegedly in possession of the drugs was only accepted into the community, against the wishes of those who lived there, on the insistence of a local Sinn Féin councillor who vouched for the good character of the person. The residents’ objections were based on a strong belief that the man would bring the drugs trade into the estate.

After the arrest the Community Association told the partner of the man in custody that she would no longer be welcomed in the estate. Such an approach has many drawbacks and community associations must tread very carefully in order to ensure that an injustice is not created. A prominent Belfast Sinn Féin member tried to pressurise the Association to rescind its decision to ask the woman to leave. With little headway having been made, a leading figure in the Provisional IRA informed the Residents Association chair that the woman would be staying and there would be no further questioning of the decision.

Unhappy with the manner in which the issue was being dealt with the Association called a meeting last Wednesday in the local community centre. The meeting was publicly advertised and the hall was packed. There seemed to be a cross representation of views and while the discussion that took place gave rise to disagreement on a range of issues there was little sign of rancour. What was evident was that the Rathenraw Community Association had the confidence of the body of the hall. Many of those who spoke did not pull their punches when it came to being critical of Sinn Féin. While allegations of threats, bullying and intimidation all surfaced, the general critique seemed to be one of no proper political representation.

Sinn Féin clearly not happy with the stand taken by the Community Association, moved muscle into the estate on Friday. Two Sinn Féin councillors accompanied by seven carloads of people weaved their way through the streets. In some cases homes of those who had been critical of the party were photographed. A female youth worker claims to have been told she would have to leave Antrim for good. Other reports indicate that one man who came out to complain about the heavy-handed approach was told he would have every bone in his body broken if he did not go back into his home. Most sinister of all was the charge that the home of the chairperson of the Community Association was the site of a ‘visit’ by seven men who banged loudly on the door and peered through the windows. At one point one of the ‘visitors’ was said to have pulled a balaclava over his face.

If these reports are true - and they are coming from more than one source - then Sinn Féin is engaged in thuggish intimidation of those who challenge the party’s writ. It now seems clear what one local party councillor meant when he told both the Antrim Guardian and the Antrim Times that the Republican Movement would deal with those it had taken umbrage with.

The Rathenraw Community Association should be free to make decisions about its own community without the threat of force being hurled in its direction. If it makes the wrong decision, bullying its members is not the way to rectify matters. The bulk of these people, republicans included, do not oppose the peace process and have no allegiance to any other republican group. The former Sinn Féin members stayed with the party through thick and thin. They did not quit over strategic disagreements. Many of them would be happy to be back in Sinn Féin if the party was to function with more accountability and deliver effective representation. What the people of Rathenraw need is to be listened to not threatened. They are not pawns in some strategic game that demands of them that they give up their concerns and aspirations for their own community as part of a bigger picture that none of them are allowed to shape or critique.

If what is happening in Rathenraw is weighed up in a context of Sinn Féin trying to achieve power, what will the party do in order to hold on to that power? Thoughts of it ever acquiring control over justice or policing must invoke images of the Broy Harriers.

© 2004 Irish Republican News