Police are mounting undercover patrols to try to halt an escalating sectarian campaign of attacks on Catholic homes, schools and churches in north Antrim.
With senior churchmen urging greater action from Unionist politicians to end the destruction in and around Ballymena, police chiefs today revealed that covert operations had been ordered as part of new security measures.
Fifty officers belonging to the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s tactical support unit have also been drafted in to patrol the streets at night and guard property they believe could be under threat.
The decision was made after arsonists set fire to a second Catholic primary school inside 24 hours.
Superintendent Terry Shevlin, district commander confirmed: “These are all operations that will be obvious for all to see, but I am also deploying resources for covert patrolling.
“This is an immediate response, but it is not one that we can sustain over a long period.”
SDLP, Sinn Féin and teachers’ union officials have demanded an end to the violence.
As police drafted in additional resources to protect schools and churches, the Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr Patrick Walsh said political representatives in the Rev Ian Paisley’s north Antrim constituency needed to do more.
“The time is past for simply making statements of condemnation,” he said. “It is time for action. Elected representatives need to be there for the common good and to show courage and leadership.”
Dr Paisley, and Ballymena’s DUP mayor, Tommy Nicholl, have already condemned the burnings and paint and petrol bombings.
But with few people charged, nationalists fear the organised and sustained campaign to terrorise vulnerable Catholic families, which has lasted for most of the summer, shows no sign of stopping.
The latest fire destroyed the P7 classroom at St Louis Primary School which was due to re-open tomorrow.
It followed another fire which swept part of St Mary’s Primary School in the Harryville area of the town.
The latest fires were among a wave of attacks in Ballymena and neighbouring north Antrim towns and villages including Ahoghill, where some Catholics were issued with fire resistant blankets and alarms.
Protestant and Catholic homes in north and east Belfast have been hit in a series of tit-for-tat attacks, but the scale of the trouble in north Antrim has shocked all sides.
Sinn Féin Assembly member Philip McGuigan challenged Mr Paisley to do more to stop the violence.
The North Antrim MLA said: “These attacks are happening in a climate were Ian Paisley and his DUP refuses to engage with Sinn Féin and were he refuses to share power in the North (of Ireland) with nationalism.
“This sends the very clear message that nationalists and republicans in his opinion are second class citizens. This fact is giving political cover to this current violent campaign.
“I am challenging Ian Paisley to do the right thing and to work with all elected representatives in his own constituency, including myself, to find a way of ending these attacks. That is the kind of political leadership that is required. It is required now before lives are lost.”
SDLP councillor Declan O’Loan said the attacks on Catholic property indicated a deep communal problem in the area.
“It is absolutely essential that the elected representatives go far beyond condemnation and start examining the primary causes of this very determined sectarian campaign against Catholic buildings,” he said.
“This puts a particular responsibility on unionist politicians to engage with nationalist politicians, including myself.”
Frank Bunting, northern secretary of the Irish National Teachers Organisation, said it was imperative all community representatives made every effort to halt the sectarian thuggery.
He said: “Any attack on a school is an attack on the community, the teaching and learning of pupils and the entire education service.”