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Northern Ireland Assembly

23 January 2001 (continued)


Sectarian Attacks (Larne)


Mr Neeson:

I am raising this important and serious issue because of the deteriorating situation in Larne. I am sure that Members will join me in condemning the sectarian attacks on three homes in Larne last night.

It is important in this kind of situation that people recognise the problems in the area. As elected representatives we should provide leadership. In raising the issue, I recognise that other areas of Northern Ireland such as Ballymena, Coleraine and Ballymoney have suffered from sectarian attacks in recent months. We must recognise that there is a major problem. Since October, over 30 pipe bomb attacks have occurred throughout Northern Ireland, quite a number of them in the Larne area.

Mr R Hutchinson:

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it right for a Member to quote statistics that are not necessarily true? Can he give a breakdown of those attacks? It is not true that most of the 30 pipe bomb attacks occurred in Larne.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

That is not a point of order.

Mr Neeson:

I wish that when people quote me they would do so accurately. I said that a considerable number of them have been in the Larne area.

Mr R Hutchinson:

Quantify it.

Madam Deputy Speaker:


Mr Neeson:

The statistics I am using have come from the RUC.

Mr R Hutchinson:

Quantify it.

Mr Neeson:

At the outset of the debate I appealed to Members to give leadership on this issue. This sort of activity by the Member is not going to help the situation. I want a reasoned debate to see how we, as elected Members of the Assembly, can give leadership on this important issue.

Mr R Hutchinson:

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not think that it is lack of leadership on my part to ask the Member to quantify what he is saying.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

That is not a point of order.

Mr Neeson:

The intention was to have this debate on a reasoned and sensible level, and for people not to get carried away. It is for them to provide the leadership, which the community is seeking elected representatives to provide. You all know that pipe bombs can kill and maim. Fortunately, there have been no serious injuries from the use of pipe bombs, whether in Larne or elsewhere, over the recent months.

What is happening in Larne is a very complex issue. As someone who worked in the town for quite a considerable time, and who keeps in regular contact with constituents there, I know the complexities of the situation.

RUC statistics show that last year the police stated that there were 76 sectarian attacks in Larne. In reality, as we all know, there were probably a lot more because of the number of attacks that were not reported. There have been attacks on Catholic and Protestant homes. Looking at the statistics, I am sure that everyone will agree that the majority of them have been on the Catholic community there.

Whether they are pipe bombs, petrol bombs or bricks being thrown through windows - as happened last night - the aim is to terrorise individuals and the whole community. In most of the attacks that have taken place, whether they are against Catholic homes or Protestant homes, the motivation is sectarian hatred. It is a sad fact of life that that is permeating society throughout Northern Ireland at the present time. Very often the targets are the elderly, the very young or single parents. There is a deep fear throughout the community in Larne and elsewhere at the present time.

The very fact that we have the Army back on the streets of Larne indicates how serious the existing situation is. The sad thing - and this comes from someone who has worked in Larne and represents the Larne area - is that the image of Larne has been tarnished at home and abroad. When I raised the issue of the attacks with the Prime Minister last Thursday he was very well acquainted with what was happening in the area. This Thursday I and members of my party will be meeting the Chief Constable to discuss Larne and the issues that exist in other parts of Northern Ireland.

The bottom line is that the rule of law must be restored in the streets of Larne and in other areas. The rule of law is breaking down in many parts of Northern Ireland for many different reasons. A big part of it is the whole question of sectarianism, whether it is Catholic sectarianism or Protestant sectarianism. While it is very much a rule of law issue, the community itself has a very important part to play.

4.30 pm

The community must recognise that it has a responsibility, although we must bear in mind the fear that prevents many people not only from reporting attacks but from giving information to the legitimate security services.

There was a series of sectarian attacks in Larne and throughout east Antrim in the 1970s. Indeed, I was almost a victim of a sectarian bomb attack on St Comgall's club in Larne. But for the grace of God and the fact that only the detonator and not the whole bomb went off, I would not be here today. Nonetheless, throughout the troubles Larne was a mixed housing area; by and large, there were no ghettos. Now, however, there are increasing concerns that people on both sides are trying to create such ghettos. That is not acceptable and more cross-community initiatives are needed to stop it.

I am not saying that no such initiatives are happening; the building of the new YMCA youth club was a cross-community effort. This morning, the rector of St Cedma's told me about the Close Encounter event taking place in Larne this weekend in another attempt to defuse the situation. I also welcome the Wave Trauma Centre's initiative to help victims in Larne, regardless of the community from which they come. The Larne community must stand shoulder to shoulder and isolate those who are carrying out the attacks, but the people need our leadership.

One of the saddest things is that condemnation of the attacks has almost become a ritual. There is a need for new initiatives, and I hope for some worthwhile suggestions from Members today. I also want the Assembly to recognise that there are areas of social deprivation in Larne and that such areas suffer from all the associated social problems. The people need our help in many different ways, and we should provide it. Looking at what has happened in Northern Ireland in recent years, I feel that we can make progress only if people are prepared to talk to one another - one community to another and one individual to another. That could restore the normality that the people of Larne want.

Despite the apparent success of FG Wilson, new investment is still required in the borough of Larne. The six elected Members for the area have demonstrated that we can work together on economic and investment issues. I thank the many people who are working behind the scenes. They have my support, and that of the Assembly. I have tried to approach Larne's problems in a reasoned and balanced manner. As elected representatives, we must help the people of Larne.

Mr K Robinson:

I speak on this particular topic with some sadness. Any attack upon persons or property deserves to be condemned. I condemn all the attacks in Larne, as I would condemn them in any part of my constituency or in any part of Northern Ireland.

In doing so, I am reflecting the views and opinions of all decent, right-thinking people in our community who want to live in an atmosphere of real peace. I trust that by engaging in this measured and responsible debate - and I thank the hon Member for starting off in that vein - we are not becoming pawns in any overt or covert considerations driven by party political necessity.

I have listened and watched in sadness as opportunities to provide positive leadership in this sorry situation were missed. Instead, we have witnessed a slow slide into a process dictated by a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you tell a child often enough that he is a bad boy, he will become a bad boy.

In common with certain other provincial towns such as Ballymena, Coleraine and Portadown, it almost seems that Larne has been selected for a process of communal character assassination. I leave Members to ponder for themselves how and why that process may have evolved.

Larne was - and continues to be - an industrious, prosperous and pleasant town. In common with all towns, Larne has had its problems. However, the people of Larne, following in the tradition of their forefathers, did not sit down and bemoan their lot. Instead, they sought to challenge the spectre of unemployment by accepting the need to refocus the local economy.

A forward-looking borough council and an active business and community sector sought ways to retrain their workforce. Partnership boards, community groups and agencies such as Larne Enterprises Development Company (LEDCOM) and the East Antrim Institute for Further and Higher Education have provided positive approaches to meet these challenges for their whole community.

It is a matter of regret to those who have the best long-term interests of Larne and its people at heart that when the media were treated to a guided tour of the borough, the spotlight fell on a small number of rather nasty and negative incidents rather than on the positive features of the town.

However, as is the way with media interest, the failure to accentuate the positive is matched by the ability to magnify the negative aspects of a situation.

Instead of preparing papers for perusal by powers in a neighbouring state - a state, which incidentally, has a significant number of problems with urban crime and violence on its own doorstep - would it not have been in the interests of all the inhabitants of Larne to seek a united approach with the MLAs of East Antrim and the representatives of Larne? That would have enabled people to identify the real causes for the upsurge in antisocial behaviour in the town. It could be achieved by identifying those in the community who could influence people for the common good. By co-ordinating agencies, we could bring confidence and support to those who have felt uneasy and insecure, thereby isolating the real troublemakers and providing the RUC with the unqualified and total support that the force needed and deserved as it attempted to solve the problems for the benefit of all.

It would be a good start if those who are inclined "in foreign parts to roam" - as the song says - could speak to those a little closer to home. It is evident from moves today that all East Antrim MLAs are willing to be proactive and constructive in solving this problem, and I congratulate my Colleague Mr Beggs for instigating a process today which I hope will aid that work. We need to have a co-ordinated community solution, and we need to find it quickly so that the town of Larne can once again focus on the task of attracting tourists and investors. We must be able to demonstrate that the traditional warm welcome which the gateway of Ulster has always shown to visitors is still there.

Mr O'Connor:

First of all, let us not try and brush things under the carpet. There are problems in Larne, and they need to be dealt with by all of us. We all have a role to play. There were three more incidents last night. Two Catholic families and one Protestant family had their windows broken. Regardless of who they are, no victim should be regarded as worse than any other victim. These people have had their lives turned upside-down by thuggish elements. It might be a stone or a bottle that comes through their window tonight, but they will sit there wondering what it will be tomorrow night.

We can talk about all the good things - Larne Enterprises Development Company, the council initiatives, and all the rest - but in reality there is what Archbishop Eames termed "a culture of lawlessness" in areas throughout Northern Ireland. Larne is certainly one of those areas.

Mr Ken Robinson talked about selecting an area for some sort of assassination of its reputation. In the 1970s there was a Catholic school in Greenisland that had 400 pupils. It closed down in 1992 with 27 pupils. Two years ago - a week after I was elected to this august body - one estate in Carrickfergus was systematically ethnically cleansed of its Catholic population. Now we are into Larne. There is no accident. Gary McMichael spoke on 'Evening Extra' last Thursday about elements in the Ulster Democratic Party being disaffected with the way things were going in places such as Larne, Ballymoney and Coleraine. Surprise, surprise. We see where all the incidents that make the news are happening.

There is a problem, and it has to be tackled. It is not just the UDA. There are people from the Protestant community whose homes are being attacked. I deplore those attacks. I want to focus on the need for more police action. We have been told about the number of police officers available and that there are extra patrols. There are, however, no arrests and no convictions. I speak as one whose home has been attacked on multiple occasions. I have given evidence in court, only to see the perpetrators go away with a community service order. The police and the criminal justice system must stand up for victims. Where are the 800 Special Branch officers? What are they doing? For 30 years they could contain the problem in Northern Ireland. Now they cannot contain what is going on in Larne, Ballymoney and Coleraine.

We need to see a different type of policing. We need to see a political decision made by the Secretary of State that this whole culture of lawlessness - drug dealing, the manufacture of counterfeit goods, money laundering and extortion - will be tackled head-on. We can all stick our heads in the sand, or we can face up to our responsibilities by calling for community action, and by calling for people to report what they know to the police. There are people in the community who know what is happening, and they have a moral responsibility to take that information to the police so that they can do the job they are there to do.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close.

Mr O'Connor:

I will.

Mention has been made of the Army on the streets of Larne. They were outside my house at 2.30 this morning. They went past again at 3.10 am. They would not be there if they were not needed, and I ask the Government for action. Under the Good Friday Agreement, people were guaranteed the right to freely choose their own place of residence and the right to live free from sectarian harassment. In human rights legislation -

Madam Deputy Speaker:

The Member's time is up.

Mr O'Connor:

May I have half a minute? This is very important to the people I represent. Both Catholics and Protestants need to know that they are safe in their beds at night.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

I am sorry, Mr O'Connor. Your time is up.

4.45 pm

Mr R Hutchinson:

I must say from the outset that I am appalled at this motion. It is the last thing that Larne needs. It would have better behoved Mr Neeson to get the six MLAs for the area to sit down together behind closed doors and talk to each other. Then we could have come up with a formula for tackling this issue instead of bringing it again to the attention of the media. There are people in Larne who are hurting. I want to state publicly that there is no justification for the terrorising or intimidation of any human being in Larne or anywhere else in Northern Ireland, be they Protestant or Catholic, black or white, Hindu or Jew. Everyone has the right to live peacefully and to be dealt with equally under the law.

Larne is no different from any other part of Northern Ireland. Mr Neeson gave us the statistics, but I want him to carry those statistics through. Let us look at those figures. Mr Neeson talked about 76 attacks in Larne. Fifty-three attacks have been on Roman Catholics, and 35 on Protestants. Members may notice that that does not add up to 76. However, there could have been four or five people in those houses. That is how the figures add up. There is an imbalance here. There is intimidation, but it is against both sides of the community. Do not try to make out that it is any worse than in any other place. Everyone suffers when there is a breakdown of law and order. We only have to look throughout Northern Ireland to see that, stemming from the Belfast Agreement, there has been a general breakdown in law and order.

I call upon the RUC to implement zero tolerance when dealing with people who harass, petrol bomb, firebomb and intimidate others. There is absolutely no room for intimidation in any society. The majority of decent people in Larne reject the lawlessness of the few and support their neighbours, regardless of creed or colour. It is time for the silent majority in Larne to speak out. We know what happened in Nazi Germany when the majority turned its back. We do not want that to happen in Northern Ireland. We definitely do not want it to happen in Larne.

The people of Larne need to realise that they have to come forward to the forces of law and order and report anything, no matter how insignificant it may seem. It will help the police to build up a dossier and bring these people to book.

I have been appalled at some of the media coverage on Larne. Ulster Television is the worst offender. A programme on UTV last Friday evening featured an interview with a gentleman from the Seacourt estate. Watchers were led to believe that it was impossible for Roman Catholics to shop in Larne or go to the cinema. That afternoon I had walked the streets of Larne and was stopped by many members of the Roman Catholic community thanking me for my leadership - and they were shopping merrily in Larne. They were able to go into any shop that I entered; they were able to buy their groceries where I bought mine.

I call on the media to realise that Larne is no worse than any other town in Northern Ireland. In Coleraine last year there were 19 pipe bombs; in Larne there were two. In Coleraine there were 18 petrol bombs; in Larne there were 10.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Please draw your remarks to a close.

Mr R Hutchinson:

In Coleraine there were seven intimidations; in Larne there were 15. In Coleraine there were 13 firearm incidents; in Larne there were three. Let us have balance and the truth. Larne is a good town in which the majority of residents despise those who are creating havoc for a number of people.

Mr J Kelly:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It was interesting that Sean Neeson and Danny O'Connor both compared events in Larne in 1970 to what is happening in the present phase of sectarianism. It is not good enough to talk about this as being antisocial behaviour. It is not - this is a concerted, orchestrated attack on the Catholics of Larne, which extends to Coleraine and Ballymena. Roger Hutchinson provides figures on how many pipe bombs there were in Larne, Coleraine and Ballymena and says that Larne did not have that many. Even one pipe bomb in Larne is sufficient reason for concern.

People have spoken about members of the Protestant community in Larne being attacked, yet it is the Nationalist community that has borne the brunt of those attacks. There were 150 attacks on Catholics in the Larne area before Christmas last year. This year, those attacks are not abating but increasing, and there is a greater degree of indifference to what happens to the victims of those attacks. There is greater arrogance among those participating in the attacks and a greater feeling that they can get away with it.

The term "ethnic cleansing" is not too strong to use in relation to what is happening in Larne and in other areas of east Antrim. It is clear that the attacks are being orchestrated by Loyalist paramilitaries in the UDA and the LVF.

Mr K Robinson:

Will the Member give way?

Mr J Kelly:

I have only five minutes.

Their intention is quite clearly to ethnically cleanse those predominately Loyalist areas in Larne, Ballymena and Coleraine. They want to drive Catholics from their homes - homes in which they have lived for generations. Those families have shown remarkable courage, resilience and determination in standing their ground. That is why I think that it was right for Mr Neeson to bring the matter to the Floor.

UTV is only reporting the news as it gets it. You cannot blame UTV, 'the Irish News', the 'Belfast Telegraph' or the BBC for what is happening. They can only report the news as it unfolds. I was listening to that man who was recently pipe bombed. He seemed a reasonable and reasoned man who did not attempt to make capital out of the attack on himself and his family, an attack that could have caused the deaths of those who were in the house at that time.

Mr R Hutchinson:

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The statistics clearly prove 53 attacks on Roman Catholics and 35 on Protestants -

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Mr Hutchinson, under which Standing Order are you raising this matter? It is not a point of order.

Mr J Kelly:

I will continue and conclude.

What is happening in Larne deserves the condemnation of the Assembly. The Nationalist people in Larne deserve our support and the support of the whole community.

Mr Ken Robinson referred to visits to Dublin. The Irish Government, together with the British Government, have a distinct responsibility to support those people in Larne - people who have lived in Larne all those years and who were born and reared there. They deserve the support of all Governments and all interested people in our society.

It is quite nice to talk about Larne being the gateway to this or that. At the present time, and in the present atmosphere, Larne is being visited by a degree of sectarianism unparalleled since 1970.

Mr Boyd:

I am speaking not as an East Antrim MLA but as an ordinary citizen. Mr Roger Hutchinson has pointed out that Larne mirrors many parts of Northern Ireland. At the outset I want to condemn utterly the sectarian attacks in Larne on both Protestants and Roman Catholics. My condemnation of paramilitary violence, from whatever source, has been consistent.

It is regrettable that the SDLP representative for East Antrim, Mr Danny O'Connor, gives the impression on nightly media interviews that attacks are happening only against the Roman Catholic community. RUC statistics reveal that many Protestants have also been intimidated in the Larne area. Mr O'Connor refers to ethnic cleansing in the 1970s. My uncle and his family, along with many other Protestants, were ethnically cleansed from New Barnsley in the 1970s. Larne town centre was bombed twice by the Provisional IRA in the 1970s.

Some criticisms from Nationalist elected representatives against the RUC in Larne are unwarranted and unjustified. The impression has been given that no one has been apprehended for these attacks. The RUC has stated that it has arrested 25 people in connection with these criminal acts. The situation is inflamed by the type of inaccurate public statements that I have already mentioned. A minority on both sides is intent on causing division in Larne. It is hypocritical of Danny O'Connor to demand more RUC resources, including covert operations, when his party is demanding the destruction of the RUC and the full implementation of the Patten Report, which would result in a reduction of RUC resources. Will Danny O'Connor call on young Roman Catholics in Larne to join the RUC? For years the SDLP has been critical of covert security force operations, including those that have been successful in capturing ruthless terrorists. I trust that Nationalist representatives in Larne will condemn the provocative flying of the tricolour in parts of the borough.

One leading Nationalist from Larne, Bertie Shaw, is currently charged with the attempted murder of two Protestants in the town in 2000. In 1999 the same Mr Bertie Shaw, along with Gerard Rice from the Ormeau Road, organised a Nationalist protest at an Orange cultural event at the Waterfront Hall. My wife and I and others were kicked and punched on the way in to the event. Some young children were too frightened to enter the building. The SDLP did not condemn this violence against innocent Protestants celebrating their culture.

The community in Larne should assist the RUC, and all elected representatives should act responsibly and impartially. I agree with Mr Roger Hutchinson when he says that it would be better for the six East Antrim MLAs to get together rather than have a divisive debate such as this. I praise those elected representatives who have acted responsibly in condemning the violence, from whatever quarter. I regret to say that comments made by a small number of elected representatives have been irresponsible and have raised tensions in the Larne area. Everyone has the right to live in peace, free from violence and intimidation. Regrettably, the continuing implementation of the Belfast Agreement and its appeasement policy will most likely result in this violent activity spreading to other parts of Northern Ireland unless the Government demonstrate the will to defeat terrorism and restore the rule of law.

Mr Neeson says that the rule of law has broken down. This is due to the release of prisoners under the Belfast Agreement, the strengthening of paramilitary organisations through the elevation of their representatives to political office and the supply of unlimited funding for their organisations.


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