Preparations are currently underway for the funeral of fifteen-year-old Michael McIlveen who died on Monday after he was fatally wounded in a sectarian gang attack in Ballymena, County Antrim last weekend.
Michael was beaten about the head with a baseball bat while a gang of up to a dozen unionist youths jumped on his head.
Five people, all youths from the town, have been charged with the murder, which has raised fears of a new generation engaging in sectarian violence.
It has emerged that scores of sectarian attacks in the town in recent months are not being reported to any authority or in the media.
Michael’s mother Gina said her son had also been the victim of a sectarian assault three months ago when he was assaulted on Cushendall Road. On that occasion he needed three stitches in his mouth.
She said she too had been targeted in a sectarian assault in the Tower shopping centre and needed an operation.
Despite their grief, the McIlveen family has bravely sought to confront sectarianism in Ballymena, a citadel for unionist hardliners.
Wearing the bloodstained Celtic football shirt which Michael had been wearing the night he died, his mother said she ‘loved” Ballymena and would stay in the town but that sectarianism in the area “had to stop”.
She called for tough sentences for those convicted of murder and said she had been overwhelmed by the support from both sides of the community.
The family has invited DUP leader Ian Paisley, a local man, to the funeral on Monday.
Michael’s uncle Francis McIlveen said: “I would like him to be there. He was the first one to ring me at the hospital. He is the MP for the area and, to me, he has the right to be there.
“It doesn’t matter what anybody else says, it is what we want. If he wants to come, then he is more than welcome.”
Sinn Féin has also urged Ian Paisley and the DUP to play a leading role in ending the pattern of Protestant violence against young Catholics, which has seen three such murders in the past eighteen months.
“These three young men had their whole lives ahead of them yet they fell victim to anti-Catholic hatred, bigotry and sectarianism,” said party negotiator Martin McGuinness. “This pattern of sectarian violence cannot be allowed to continue.
“Politicians have the primary responsibility to demonstrate leadership and unionist politicians in particular have a role to play in challenging sectarianism within their community. Sinn Féin will stand shoulder to shoulder with any politician willing to stand with us against sectarianism.”
However, the appeals appear to have fallen on deaf ears following a report of sectarian comments from a member of Mr Paisley’s team.
Roy Gillespie, a DUP councillor in Ballymena, claimed that Michael McIlveen “will not get into heaven” because Catholics “are not accepted” there. Mr Gillespie, a Protestant evangelical, made the comments to explain his own opposition to attending the funeral, which he said was against his religious beliefs.
“The Pope is the Antichrist and is the head of the Catholic church, which is not a true church or faith. I’m not going to listen to Mass in a Catholic church. I don’t care if it’s at a funeral, wedding or whatever else,” he said.
Mr Gillespie’s comments sparked a furious response from politicians.
North Antrim Sinn Féin assembly member Philip McGuigan said: “Mr Gillespie’s sentiments are disgraceful, especially as they come so soon after a 15-year-old was murdered as a result of sectarian bigotry.
“This is the kind of attitude that causes others to carry out attacks fuelled by religious hatred. There is no excuse for these comments.”
Martin McGuinness said the remarks were “disgraceful and we need to hear commentary from Ian Paisley on this matter.
“Unionist politicians refusing to talk or share power with nationalists and republicans is at one end of the scale which ends up with young catholic lying dead on the street. That is the reality of the society in which we live and that is the reality which must now changed.
“Ian Paisley has a major role to play in ending the cycle of the murder of young Catholics on our streets. He now has to rise to that challenge.”
Sinn Féin cancelled its north Antrim hunger strike commemorations following reports that a unionist counter-demonstration was planned, but the party denied that it was because of initimidation.
Philip McGuigan said: “It became obvious to us that there were elements within unionism and loyalism that were intent on causing some kind of protest on Friday night, so we had no desire to do anything that would add to community tensions.”
Tension has been high in the Dunclug estate since the savage assault. Shock, mixed with foreboding, has fuelled a sense of dread in local residents.
One frightened resident said it was too dangerous to be seen publicly condemning the brutal attack.
“People can’t use their names. If they do they will be identified as a Catholic the next time they go into town. That’s how bad it is,” she said.
McGuigan accused the DUP-controlled Ballymena council of failing to create the conditions which would allow the town’s Catholic community to live in safety and urged DUP leader and North Antrim MP Ian Paisley not to ignore his “responsibility”.
In an unprecedented move on Tuesday the loyal orders issued a statement condemning the killing and said it could not be justified by any political loyalty or religious affiliation. The statement also called for an end to sectarian conflict.
However, Sinn Féin’s Pat Doherty said the three orders had it in their power to reduce tensions by rerouting contentious parades.
Mr Doherty said the orders should “proceed as normal” with every non-contentious parade but must “think seriously about voluntarily re-routing the very small number of marches which cause offence and raise tensions by seeking to parade through communities where they are not wanted or at a minimum engage with the representatives of those areas”.
Organisers of a unionist band parade that is scheduled to pass the spot where Michael McIlveen was murdered are understood to be in talks aimed at postponing the march.
The Ballykeel Loyal Sons of Ulster originally planned to march through Ballymena on May 20.
Churchmen in the town have asked the band to postpone the parade to ease tension.
Republican Sinn Féin said the murder was “another barbaric reminder to nationalists of how little has changed”.
Sectarian hatred still exists in the occupied Six Counties “and has increased since the 1998 Stormont Agreement,” the statement added.
The 32 County Sovereignty Movement appeal for calm following the murder, which they said was the latest in a litany of attacks by loyalists in Ballymena.
“The lack of action by the police illustrates perfectly that despite cosmetic changes they are still a sectarian police force.
“Ballymena town centre is still a no go area for nationalists who live in constant fear of attack both in the town and within nationalist areas.
The police appear unwilling or unable to protect nationalists and recent events have confirmed that the RUC/PSNI are, at the very least, turning a blind eye to loyalist aggression in Ballymena.”