A Catholic church in Ballymena which was the focus of a long-running and violent loyalist hate campaign has been forced to close.
A decline in numbers attending the church as well as ongoing repair costs were given as reasons for the closure of the Church of Our Lady in Harryville.
The County Antrim church came to worldwide attention in 1996 when loyalist mobs intimidated and attacked parishioners attempting to attend Mass every Saturday evening.
The hate campaign followed a decision to ban a sectarian loyalist parade in the nearby village of Dunloy.
The violent picket lasted 20 months and saw churchgoers injured and their vehicles attacked without any intervention by the PSNI (then RUC) police.
Among the high-profile unionists who stood in solidarity with parishioners was former Orange Order grand master Robert Saulters and the now disgraced DUP child abuser, councillor Davy Tweed.
For years a large Red Hand of Ulster was daubed outside the church gates as well as a UDA mural on a gable wall overlooking the grounds, as well as the usual red, white and blue painted kerbstones.
The church has continued to suffer sporadic attacks, and has been repeatedly struck with paint bombs, masonry and other missiles in recent years. In 2010, the church was targeted every day for a month, even though it had closed for the summer months as a precaution.
But as Catholics were forced to flee the predominately unionist town of Ballymena, the church had little option but to close for good.
There was an exodus of Catholic families from south Ballymena in the late ‘90s and the area’s only Catholic primary school also suffered from falling pupil numbers before its closure six years ago.
In a statement, the parish said the Church of Our Lady had “served the spiritual needs of the people of the parish” who “have many rich memories of the church”. It is understood the building will now be demolished.
SDLP councillor Declan O’Loan said he would “never forget the hatred, the sense of menace, the fear of attacks on the church and also on school buildings and Catholic homes” during the loyalist protest.
“Mass was celebrated against a background of angry shouting, firecrackers, police dogs barking and police sirens going off,” he said.
But the loyalist protest had produced “no winners”, he added. “The Catholic population was subjected to intolerable treatment which it bore with great dignity,” he said.
“The Catholic population in Harryville and the southern end of the town, which was substantial at one time, dwindled to virtually zero.
“The Protestant population suffered too. It lost its Catholic neighbours and a church which had the potential to be a powerful social force for good.
“It will take a long time, many decades at least, to repair the social damage done over this period. It is good that many people have started on that work.”