By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Nationalists have responded with skepticism to a loyalist statement promising “no first strike,” citing the continuation of attacks on schools, homes and even a cemetery, where Catholic gravestones were smashed.
In the Short Strand, scene of violent sectarian attacks in recent weeks, loyalist paramilitaries chose the time of a political rally to launch the latest assault.
As Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein was winding up a speech to about a thousand people last Thursday, loyalists attacked a row of houses about 200 yards away, precipitating scenes of panic.
Hundreds of people streamed away from the meeting to defend the homes with the police and British Army firing plastic bullets and using their armored vehicles to mount the pavement and disperse crowds.
Within two hours of the initial attempted incursion into the Short Strand, two pipe bombs were thrown over the peace line in the Short Strand. One exploded, injuring an elderly woman in the leg. Her shoe, full of blood that had streamed from shrapnel wounds in her leg, was pictured on the front of the following day’s Irish News. The same day, Mark Durkan, the SDLP leader, visited the Short Strand.
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The SDLP had, until then, not been noticeable by its profile in the area, and Durkan bore the brunt of some local anger at his party’s lack of action and visibility in the Short Strand. He stood his ground, however, as locals berated him and said afterward that it was wrong for the media to portray events as “tit for tat.” Insult had been added to injury, he said, when the press treated both sides of the community as equally culpable.
Over the last week, incidents of petrol bombing, the breaking of windows, the use of slingshots and occasional gunfire and intimidation against Catholic families in Antrim, Larne and Belfast has continued.
Loyalists also complain of increased tensions along peace lines throughout the greater Belfast area and farther afield and claim the media have unfairly portrayed the Protestant community as the sole aggressors.
The “Loyalist Commission,” a loose umbrella group of leading UDA and UVF men, Protestant clergy and senior Ulster Unionist members, issued a statement on Friday accusing the IRA of breaking its cease-fire and being responsible for “systematic republican agitation and aggression, aimed at Protestant communities living in interface areas.”
“Republication incursions into loyalist communities,” it said, have resulted in “sustained and orchestrated attacks” that have “caused loyalist paramilitaries to defend their communities.”
The Loyalist Commission said “paramilitaries will not initiate any action against republican communities, reaffirming their policy of no first strike” and said the right of expression for British culture and unionist traditions should be respected by republicans without unlawful protest.
It also said Sinn Fein and the IRA must “halt their present politically orchestrated violence and green propaganda toward the Protestant community” and sought “a republican reciprocation to make this initiative work.”
In response to the Commission statement, Sinn Fein’s Kelly said nationalists will judge it from the effect it has on the ground in areas like North and East Belfast.
“I have to say that we have heard statements like this before from loyalist groups, particularly the UDA in North Belfast,” Kelly said. “Each time they have been followed by more attacks on Catholic families and their homes.
“This statement attempts to place responsibility for the violence on republicans while it ignores the fact that loyalist groups have been involved in an anti-Catholic pogrom for the past two years.”
Among those who will be skeptical is the Catholic community of Larne in East Antrim, where the police commander, Supt. Tom Haylett, described ongoing loyalist violence as “vile and repulsive.” He condemned recent sectarian attacks on Catholics in the town and urged politicians, community leaders and the people of Larne to help the police put a stop to it. Nineteen incidents were recorded in the last two weeks, ranging from pouring acid over cars to slashing tires and stoning houses.