Just a stone's throw
Nationalist residents terrorised by loyalist neighbours
BY LAURA FRIEL
There's a row of newly built terrace houses, literally just a stone's throw away from the loyalist Tiger's Bay area in North Belfast. For the families who moved in just before last Christmas, it was like a dream come true.
``We'd been waiting to be rehoused for so long,'' says Belinda. ``The houses were brand new, and for many of us, it was the first time in our lives that we had a separate bedroom for each of our children.''
I thought the Good Friday Agreement guaranteed the right to live free from sectarian harassment. I thought it signalled a new beginning, but nothing has changed here.
``And a garden for playing,'' chips in Teresa. But just eight months later and some of the residents would ``move out tomorrow, if we had the chance''. Along North Queen Street, this modest row of no more than 20 houses stands on what was once waste ground on the edge of the nationalist New Lodge.
``We expected some tensions,'' says Mary, ``but with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement we hoped we'd be living in peace if not in harmony with our neighbours in Tiger's Bay.''
But it was a hope soon to be shattered. Belinda suffers with a chronic medical condition and requires regular medication. A few weeks after moving into her new home, Belinda sent her 13- year-old son to collect a prescription from the local chemist, just across the road.
``He was confronted by three men,'' says Belinda. ``One grabbed him and put his arm around his neck.'' Questioned, the child told them he was going to the chemist. ``No you're not, you fenian bastard,'' came the reply. The boy was trailed into Tigers Bay before managing to escape.
The intimidation of nationalists crossing the road to attend the local health centre or leave a prescription at the chemist is now a regular feature of life along the row. Last week, an elderly man was confronted as he left early morning surgery. A loyalist tapped him on the shoulder and told him ``not to come fucking back''.
Shopping in the nearby Tesco store or Yorkgate complex can also be an ordeal. Recently, a nationalist teenager was badly beaten by a gang of loyalists after he was spotted coming out of the Yorkgate Moviehouse.
Last month, Belinda was attacked by four men outside her own front door. ``It was 9am on a Sunday morning,'' says Belinda. ``One of them hit me on the back of the head with a beer can and I was knocked to the ground. He called me a fenian bastard.''
Sectarian intimidation during the day is accompanied by loyalist incursions by night. After persistent bombardment with bottles and bricks, a 30-foot-high iron fence was erected in front of the houses nearest to Tiger's Bay. But the attacks have continued.
``I rarely sleep well,'' says Belinda. ``The attacks can occur at any time, before midnight, after two, even four or five in the morning. Windows are smashed, paint bombs are thrown.
``My son was so happy with his new bedroom but now he's too afraid to sleep in it.''
``It's paint bombs now,'' says Mary, ``but who's to say when it'll be petrol?'' Residents have been repeatedly threatened by loyalists , who claim ``we'll be back to burn you out''.
One resident was so afraid for the safety of her family that during the Twelfth she pitched a tent at the back of her house for her children to sleep in.''Nobody gets much sleep around here,'' says Teresa.
During the most serious incident, a stone-throwing loyalist mob of around a hundred attacked residents and pounded their homes with bottles and bricks. The attack began at about 9pm last Saturday evening 29 July and continued for over two hours.
At one point, hand-to-hand fighting broke out as residents desperately fought back to keep the mob at bay. A 13-year-old boy, Kieran, standing in his own front garden, suffered a head wound when he was hit by a rock thrown by the mob.
Three residents who arrived home in a taxi were attacked and beaten by loyalists. When Bobby saw his two companions being beaten and kicked to the ground he went over to intervene, only to become the mob's next victim.
``I was punched and kicked and hit in the eye with a brick,'' he says. ``There was a big crowd of them, mostly adults. I thought we were going to be killed.'' Bobby sustained a fractured cheekbone, severe bruising and double vision in one eye.
Bobby and his two companions escaped from the mob only to be confronted by riot clad RUC squads who had just arrived at the scene. ``I ran away from the mob,'' says John, ``and into a line of RUC officers. One officer lifted his baton and struck me across the back of the arm.''
A second man escaping from attack by the loyalist mob was also batoned by the RUC. He sustained serious bruising and required hospital treatment for an injury to his back. ``It took the RUC over an hour to arrive,'' says a resident, ``and then they turned on us. Loyalists continued to stone us over the RUC's jeeps.''
There are 18 children living in this tiny row of houses. Their families hoped they were moving to a better life, decent housing and green space to play, but now they're ``prisoners in their own homes,'' says Mary. ``I thought the Good Friday Agreement guaranteed the right to live free from sectarian harassment. I thought it signalled a new beginning, but nothing has changed here.''