By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Night after night, pipe bombs are thrown, gunfire rings out and, in the morning, under-car booby trap devices are being found in a sustained and escalating series of loyalist attacks on both uninvolved Catholics and the families of republican ex-prisoners.
The pattern appears to be an attempt at provoking an IRA response. The UDA is being blamed for the attacks, which have increased to include pipe-bombings at the rate of about one a day, petrol-bombings, gun attacks, booby-trap devices (attached under cars) and stone throwing.
As the Echo went to press Tuesday, a total of 28 pipe-bomb attacks against Catholics had been recorded in January.
The Ulster Democratic Party, which speaks for the UDA, denies it is involved, but few believe it as the UDA has used flags of convenience for attacks and murders before, including the terms "Red Hand Defenders" and "Orange Volunteers."
On Monday, a self-styled "pastor" pleaded guilty in court to possession of grenades and a pipe bomb. The man, Clifford Peeples, aged 31, is believed to have "blessed" pipe bombs before they were used by the Orange Volunteers against vulnerable Catholic families in North Belfast and Portadown, Co. Armagh.
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He was arrested, with another man, in October 1999 on the outskirts of Dungannon, Co. Tyrone. The grenades in the car contained around 110 grams of high explosive TNT. Peeples was earlier involved in Families Against Intimidation and Terror, which campaigned against punishment beatings.
Vincent McKenna, another former member of FAIT, was recently convicted of a series of sexually abusing his own daughter, Sorcha, and jailed in the republic. FAIT, which was funded by the British government, has since become defunct.
The recent spate of potentially lethal loyalist attacks are taking place throughout the North, but are concentrated in North Antrim (particularly the towns of Ballymena and Ballymoney), East Antrim (the towns of Carrickfergus and Larne) and in North Belfast.
One man being blamed for masterminding the sectarian attacks in East Antrim is a man with the nickname "Grugg," who has been convicted of the attempted murder of Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams. Another, blamed for the North Antrim attacks, lives in Ballymoney and is known as the "Mexican."
In North Belfast, the notorious Shankill Road C Company, whose leader, Johnny Adair, is currently behind bars, is being held responsible. One family that has suffered two recent attacks is that of ex-republican prisoner Martin Meehan, the current Sinn Fein candidate for South Antrim.
Two of Meehan’s sons have been targeted, both in the Ardoyne area, one in a shooting the other in a bomb attack. The Red Hand Defenders has admitted responsibility for both attacks, but it’s believed no such group exists and that it is a cover name for the UDA.
Meehan said he had "no problem" with the UDA attacking him and could "take it on the chin," but he believed the UDA were cowards for attacking his family. Sinn Fein say the attacks appeared deliberately provocative and called on people to be calm and vigilant.
Meehan has also blamed the UDA. He said he had been visited the previous night by the RUC officers, who told him they had received information about a threat to his life.
"I think it’s an absolute disgrace, when people are trying to build on peace and build on the future, when these people are living in the past," he said.
North Belfast assembly member Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein said he was in no doubt that the UDA is behind this latest attack.
"It is a hugely worrying development and is clearly designed to be provocative," he said.
During a tour of North Antrim on Monday night, Adams, accused the DUP leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, of being "uncharacteristically silent" about the "protracted murder campaign against Catholics. Unionists would seem to be in denial about the intensity of loyalist actions."
A former Sinn Fein election worker was also targeted in a recent car bombing. Kelly said that the man found the device attached to his car in the nationalist Ardoyne area at around 7:30 in the morning. It followed a bomb alert in the same district when a suspect device fell from a resident’s vehicle as he was reversing out of his driveway.
The find came as a petrol bomb and the remains of another were discovered in the grounds of a Catholic primary school in Larne, Co. Antrim. No damage was caused to St. Anthony’s by the devices, which were uncovered by the school caretaker.
Meanwhile, the SDLP has expressed its concern over growing sectarian violence as the RUC investigates a number of other attacks that occurred overnight. A pipe bomb was thrown at the roof of a car in Ballymoney, while in County Derry another pipe bomb was thrown at the back of a house.