By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — The Ulster Defense Association murdered a young Catholic man on Monday in a coldly executed drive-by killing. The man was walking back to his North Belfast home at the end of a night out with friends after playing football for his local GAA club. The group issued the claim of responsibility using one of its cover names, the Ulster Freedom Fighters.
At least five squads of UDA gunmen cruised the streets of Belfast on Sunday night in a hunt for any vulnerable Catholic target. There were four attempted murders within two hours, police say.
The targeting only stopped when the UDA shot dead Gerard Lawlor, aged 19, who was wearing a Celtic football shirt beneath a jacket as he walked home, within yards of his house, shortly after midnight.
This particular spiral of violence began on Sunday evening when an Irish National Liberation Army gunman opened fire across the Ardoyne peaceline, hitting a Protestant in the groin. Northern Ireland, and particularly North and East Belfast, have witnessed a recent upsurge in UDA attacks.
The injured Protestant is “ill but stable” in hospital. Loyalists and unionists blamed the IRA but usually reliable sources said the INLA was responsible. There was no statement admitting responsibility from that organization, which has been recruiting heavily in Ardoyne and has been positioning itself as the defender of Catholics as the Provisional IRA remains on cease-fire.
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The INLA has found willing recruits among the growing pool of angry young nationalists, furious at recent loyalist attacks, at forced Orange marches through the area. As well, tension was increased by the loyalist blockade of the Holy Cross Girls’ School and the lack of an IRA response.
The upsurge in UDA activity dates back to last year and since when there has scarcely been a day without a pipe-bomb, petrol-bomb or some other form of attack against Catholic targets.
The recent upsurge, however, is being seen by nationalists as a response to the growing instability in the peace process, heightened by this week’s expected “yellow card” for Sinn Fein over allegations of recent breaches in the IRA cease-fire.
Lawlor, the second oldest in a family of five sons, was due to move in with his girlfriend and the mother of his 18-month-old son, Josh, within days of his murder.
The dead man’s mother, Sharon, has appealed for no retaliation and said she would be praying for those who had killed her son. The family was due to move to a new home on the day of the murder and had been staying in a hotel in Newcastle, Co. Down, for the weekend, when the police visited them to break the bad news.
In its statement, the loyalist group said there would be more violence if there are attacks on the loyalist community. The loyalist group claimed the murder was a “measured military response” to republican violence.
It said that in recent months it had held their cease-fire “under extreme provocation from republican gunmen in Provisional IRA-controlled interface areas.”
Sinn Fein’s chairman, Michel McLaughlin, said the UDA statement was “self-serving and sickening,” while the SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, said the deliberate murder of an innocent Catholic, randomly selected, could not be called a “military response.”
British Northern Ireland Secretary of State John Reid said the “vicious murder” of the Catholic man was “beneath contempt.” Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen said the drive-by shooting was “sickening and cowardly and a stark reminder of where savage sectarian hatred can lead.”
Sinn Fein’s assemblyman for North Belfast, Gerry Kelly, said the murder was the “result of a week of orchestrated violence by the UDA.”
The Sinn Fein lord mayor of Belfast, Alex Maskey, has convened a special meeting of Belfast City Council this Friday to discuss sectarian attacks in the City.
Meanwhile, in Portadown, a Catholic family was terrified after gunmen opened up fire on their home.
In Newcastle, Co. Down, the parochial house was attacked by loyalists who threw four petrol bombs and three blazing cans of lighter fuel at it. Two priests escaped after beating out the flames.
Troubled North Belfast saw another night of community strife on Thursday when loyalists launched what police branded “an unprovoked sectarian attack” on Catholic homes in Ligoniel.
A loyalist mob stormed over the peace line and began attacking Catholic homes. One house was destroyed in a petrol bomb attack and windows were broken in nine more.
A couple and their young children escaped when a petrol bomb thrown at an upstairs bedroom window exploded against the glass but did not shatter it.