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'Something has got to be done to stop this madness'
Susan McKay Irish Times May 13 2006
'I don't think I'll ever get over it. Me and my son were very, very close,' says Gina McIlveen, pictured at the shrine to her son, Michael, outside her home in Ballymena.
Photograph: Alan Lewis/Photopress Belfast
The killing of Ballymena teenager Michael McIlveen is evidence of the deep-rooted sectarianism that is infecting a new generation, reports Susan McKay
Gina McIlveen had her own experience of sectarian violence before she lost her 15-year-old son, Michael, to it this week. Last Christmas, she and her 16-year-old daughter, Jodie, who was heavily pregnant, were in the Tower Shopping Centre in Ballymena.
"This girl was following us around and she came over and she said: 'I'll kick that Fenian baby out of you.' She went for me outside Santa's grotto and then this man ran out and cracked my face with his fist and broke my nose," she says.
Catholics are victims of 90% of sectarian attacks
"I knew him. I went to the police. It was all on the CCTV cameras. They questioned him and he blamed his girlfriend. The police told me my life could be at risk if I proceeded with the case and they couldn't offer me 24-hour protection. I was scared because of who he was and I let it go. Then in March this year, Michael was attacked up the Cushendall Road. His mouth was ripped. I wanted to go to the police but he said: 'Don't, mummy, what did they do for you?' "
Late last Saturday night, Michael and friends encountered a group of young men at a takeaway in Ballymena. He was pursued and later beaten up against a wall in a car-park in the town centre. He managed to run more than a mile to his home before collapsing. He died in Antrim Hospital on Monday night.
Gina breaks down.
"I am hurt and heartbroken. I don't think I'll ever get over it," she says. "Me and my son were very, very close. There is not one person in this town could say anything against Michael. He was just a happy-go-lucky child. He was a brilliant kid and I'm going to really miss him."
Michael McIlveen was popular. Nearly all the children and teenagers in the Catholic parts of Ballymena are wearing Celtic shirts now with his nickname "Micky-bo" printed on them. Hundreds of them turned up at a candlelit vigil outside his home in the Dunvale Estate on Wednesday night.
One little boy had a Micky-bo Rangers shirt on. Big teenage boys let tears stream down their faces. Girls clung to each other, giggling one moment, sobbing the next. Michael's music was being played from his house, including the Tracey Chapman line, "Take a fast car and keep on driving . . ."
But Michael loved Ballymena.
"He was born here, and after we moved to Stranraer in Scotland they all broke their hearts to get back," Gina says. "So we came back. I put in for a transfer to Antrim last year but Michael was against it. 'Why would we leave Ballymena?' he said. 'All our friends are here.' "
The photographs on the shrine the family has erected outside the house show Micky-bo's brief life, from chubby baby to boy playing combat games - and one of him beaming as he gets kissed on both cheeks by two blonde girls.
"That's Michael with two wee girls from Ballykeel," says Gina. Ballykeel is a Protestant estate.
"I wouldn't be bitter towards Protestants," adds Gina, a single mother of four whose devotion to her children is mentioned by many who know her. "I have had great support this last two days from people from both communities. There has been people here from the Shankill Road in Belfast. Even Ian Paisley phoned. But something has got to be done to stop this madness."
The Irish News carried an unbearably moving photograph taken moments after Michael died. The tubes of the life-support machine are still on his face. His uncle is kissing his forehead, while other family members have placed their hands lovingly on his chest. The family requested that the photograph be published once and then put away.
"We just want to show people out there what happens when gangs on both sides roam about," a family member told the paper. "This is the result."
Last summer, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) was criticised for being slow to define as sectarian a spate of violent attacks against Catholic homes in the villages around Ballymena. After the attack on Michael McIlveen, the PSNI Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Orde, spoke about young people of a new generation getting caught up in sectarian violence, which was, he said, a "two-way thing". The DUP leader, and local MP, the Rev Ian Paisley, condemned the murder and called on "all sides to pull back from the brink".
This is no equal match, however. Sinn Féin councillor Philip McGuigan says that 90 per cent of the sectarian attacks in the town are by Protestants and SDLP councillor Declan O'Loan agrees that the overwhelming majority of attacks are on Catholics.
"There is a disaffected element of young Catholics who fight back," O'Loan says. The web-pages of the online teenage chatroom, Bebo, were last week full of threats of revenge for the murder of Micky-bo from some of his mates, along the lines of: "Did u c da pepers da day nice big pic of michael on it the next pic we will be cing will b urs u we scummy bastard hope u rote in hell!!!!"
On the streets of the neighbouring Dunclug estate, a startling number of young people approached at random by The Irish Times have stories of violence. They say loyalists send them threatening text messages and don't bother to conceal their numbers.
"Two weeks ago I got jumped in the field there at the top of the estate. They sliced me with a knife," says a boy holding a pit-bull terrier on a lead. He pulls up his Celtic shirt to show an angry criss-cross of cuts across his stomach. "That same night, two Catholics were attacked at a cash machine. You are always watching your back. We go about in groups because it isn't safe to go alone or in twos. Then we get hassled by the police for being a gang."
He feels safer when the dog is with him.
"Aye, he'd rip their arm off," he says.
Paul, who is 20, has a scarred face and a bent nose.
"Me and my mates were walking home and a car stopped," he says. "The door opened and we heard them shouting about Fenian bastards, so we started to run. It was a trap. There was another car ahead and six of them jumped out. I got hit with a wheel brace and kicked and left unconscious. My mates got help and they caught one of the 'huns' and hit him with a bit of a skirting board and left his eye hanging out. What goes around comes around." He shrugs. "My da gets called a Fenian bastard because he lives here - and he's a Protestant."
An eight-year-old girl and her mother are leaving flowers at the shrine against the black stone wall where Michael McIlveen was attacked. She goes to school in Harryville, which used to have a large Catholic population until loyalist intimidation pushed them out in the 1970s. "A Protestant hit me when I was coming out of school," she says. "But I've Protestant friends too."
They call the loyalists the "yoofers" (from the name for the UDA's killers, the Ulster Freedom Fighters or UFF) and the "huns".
"Huns are brought up like that," says a boy with a miraculous medal round his neck and earrings. "They're all in loyalist bands and it is tradition for them to hate Catholics. I go to a mixed army cadets scheme and I have Protestant friends and some of them are the best mates ever. They hate the yoofers too."
Last year, a judge sent a man to jail for 16 years for the attempted murder of Michael Reid in Ballymena in 2003.
"As the tide of terrorism abates, sectarianism re-emerges, oozing forth again to corrupt another generation," said Mr Justice Coghlin.
Reid, a Catholic, was visiting a house in Harryville when he was beaten so viciously that in the end he pretended to be dead. He heard his attackers discussing how to dispose of his body by sawing it to pieces. He managed to escape and was rescued by the police.
It emerged that the convicted man had served time for taking part in the notorious loyalist blockade of Harryville's Catholic church. During the lengthy protest, about the re-routing of Orange parades, a mob shouted sectarian abuse and threats at Mass-goers and people were beaten up in their homes. A preacher told the mob that this was the "ancient battle between the true church, Protestantism, and the Whore and the Beast and Baal worshippers within Catholicism". Ian Paisley was criticised for failing to show support for his Catholic constituents.
Until recently, the church was overlooked by a massive UDA mural. After mediation, the "owners" of the mural agreed to replace it with a scroll about Ulster Scots. Money was provided through the scheme initiated by the President's husband, Martin McAleese. Loyalists now claim that nationalists reneged on their part of the deal by putting up tricolours in Dunclug again.
"These guys know how to sound good," says one Protestant Ballymena community worker. "But I wonder if giving them money is the answer."
The Ulster Political Research Group, which advises the UDA on political matters, condemned Michael McIlveen's murder, while urging Sinn Féin and the SDLP to combat an "evil, evil campaign" in the nationalist community. It is assumed that this is a reference to the existence in Dunclug of a small number of Real IRA sympathisers. The UUP, the DUP and the Orange Order also condemned the murder.
The SDLP and Sinn Féin have welcomed unionist condemnations, but are also demanding action. They say Catholics are treated as second-class citizens in Ballymena, where they make up 20 per cent of the population. They point out that the DUP holds all the positions of power within the town council and refuses to share them. When an SDLP councillor died last year, the DUP refused to allow the party to co-opt another councillor and insisted on a by-election, which the DUP won.
At a council meeting earlier this month, Declan O'Loan accused the DUP of refusing to fund GAA clubs which work with hundreds of young people. Philip McGuigan points out that most of Ballymena's shops and facilities are on the Protestant southside of the River Braid, while most Catholics live on the northside.
Last year, a local DUP representative protested about the British Christmas stamp because it showed a Madonna and child. A "good relations" policy tentatively launched by the Mayor, Tommy Nicholl, was opposed by some DUP councillors and has not made much progress, according to nationalists. This week Paisley denounced "those attempting to use this tragedy as a political football".
Jeremy Gardner, a youth pastor with the Presbyterian church, was involved last year in showing solidarity with beleaguered Catholics by, among other things, helping to remove sectarian graffiti from the church at Harryville. He says there is a new openness in communication between community activists, but acknowledges an upsurge in attacks on young Catholics.
"Michael's death is part of something from a deep core. I think this comes down to an identity problem in the Protestant community," he says. "Young loyalists still have the warlike mentality of Protestants versus Catholics. They go about in gangs, just like in the 1970s. That needs to change. At the same time, unionists need to acknowledge that loyalism is part of unionism."
One young loyalist defined himself on Bebo in these terms: "Hate all taigs Put one in the bck of there heads scum of da earth." He listed his musical taste as "uda", his sports as "rangers fc". Under the heading, "scared of" he wrote "nuthin".
A UUP councillor said last week of the loyalist gangs: "The sooner these creatures are taken out of society and away from the majority of law-abiding people in the town, the better."
At St Patrick's College, where Michael McIlveen was a student, principal Catherine Magee and her staff are struggling to support students who are deeply upset while facing their exams.
"We are trying to create a sense of normality in a very abnormal situation," she says. "Michael was a lovely boy and he is a terrible loss to all of us. Our biggest challenge is to give these young people a sense of purpose and the future. A lot of them are saying: 'What does anything matter now that Michael's gone?' "
DUP sends out the sectarian message