By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Violence convulsed East Belfast and other parts of the city last week, with outbreaks of street fighting, gunfire, forced evacuations of homes, threats, bombings, riots, intimidation and car hijackings.
In East Belfast, a funeral was disrupted as loyalists invaded the grounds of a Catholic chapel and masked paramilitaries forced terrified students out of their high school. The height of the peace walls that separates the Catholic Short Strand enclave from the nearest Protestant neighborhood has been almost doubled from 13 feet to over 24.
Sinn Fein councilor Joe O’Donnell said the heightened walls around the Short Strand were an unfortunate but necessary step. In his area, doctors are having to meet patients in a community center after a loyalist picket on their offices.
Pharmacies are having to bus prescriptions into the Short Strand and even baby food is being brought to the community center to save Catholic residents from facing the daily loyalist pickets on the road leading to shops and businesses.
“This community is slowly being destroyed,” O’Donnell said. “How are we supposed to get proper medicine? Someone is going to die.”
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The protesters held placards bearing the words: “No Short Strand Residents or Republicans allowed in lower east Belfast.” Other placards referred to the new Sinn Fein lord mayor of Belfast, Alex Maskey, in unflattering words.
After republicans opened fire across the peaceline, the Police Service of Northern Ireland raided homes in the Short Strand. But Catholics say there has been a dearth of arrests in loyalist areas. Only two men have been brought before the courts for riotous behavior, although loyalists are complaining bitterly about what they are calling police “heavy-handedness.”
The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, said loyalist paramilitaries had switched tactics from trying to goad the IRA back into conflict in North Belfast to exploiting sectarian tensions in other parts of the city.
He said the failure of Unionist leaders to sell the Good Friday agreement to their community was being exploited. The violence, he said, “arises from the crisis within Unionism, and a fear that the agreement is not in the interests of Unionism.
“It is this fear which is being exploited. The victims are the nationalist people in Short Strand and their unionist neighbors. For the last 18 months there was intense effort by anti-agreement paramilitaries in North Belfast to goad the IRA back into conflict. This effort has now been switched to other interface areas. This must fail also.”
There has been some rumbling among nationalists in the Short Strand that Adams has not been outspoken in his condemnation of loyalist violence.
Adams responded by saying that “the efforts of republicans must be to calm the situation and to use our influence to have all the violence ended.”
Sectarian graffiti has increased. One slogan on Newtownards Road read: “No Short Strand Taigs on our road. At your own risk.”
The latest loyalist attack came over the weekend in the form of loudspeakers, tied to lampposts on the Protestant side of the peaceline, blaring out loyalist band music almost all night and day.
In the Short Strand, as elsewhere, community vigilantes have been staying on duty all night at vulnerable points, equipped with fire hoses, buckets of water and fire extinguishers.
Last Friday, masked loyalists invaded a college campus in Tower Street, just off the loyalist Newtownards Road, locking all the students into one room and asking for identification papers so they could apparently try to find out who were Catholic and from the Short Strand.
Although the campus is in a loyalist area, students from both sections of the community attend classes there.
The loyalists forced some students to say the alphabet, so they could hear if students pronounced the eight letter “aitch” or “haitch” (the form used mostly by Catholics).
The incident occurred just before midday as threatened students prepared for their final exams. After the incident, the administrator of the Belfast Institute decided to close the college for the rest of the term.
A female drama student said that she and a number of other students had been locked into a room by the gang. She said the students believed they were to be lined up and killed. Some have said they will not be returning to the college.
In another development, the funeral of a local woman was disrupted, causing her family intense anguish. Mourners had to seek shelter in the chapel from a hail of loyalist bricks, bottles and rocks.
Also over the weekend, in South Belfast, loyalists mounted attacks for two nights running in an apparent act of cooperation between the two main loyalist groups, the UVF and UDA.
Diners in a restaurant had to flee for safety as loyalists hijacked cars and ran amok in Donegall Pass, which was blockaded at both ends by police. One women out for dinner watched hopelessly as her new car was torched.
A mob of 30 loyalists armed with petrol bombs, catapults and axes roamed the fringes of the city center between the Ormeau Road and Shaftesbury Square. A gunman was spotted in the area emerging from a crowd of around 15 people and fired six shots.
Elsewhere, a Catholic member of PSNI who had just graduated was the target of a bomb attached to his car outside his County Antrim home on Friday. Only the detonator of the device exploded.
Dissident republicans are being blamed for the attempted bombing. The new recruit was to have begun his first day on duty in Derry on Monday. It was the first such attack on a member of the PSNI police who was not previously a member of the RUC.