Attacks on Catholics continue but mere speculation can derail politics

ONE night last week gangs of men went into Cliftonpark Avenue, Cliftondene Gardens and Ciftondene Crescent in North Belfast and attacked seven homes: four with bricks and paint bombs and three with petrol bombs.

In Clifton Park Avenue, among the petrol-bombers' targets were a four-month-old baby and her 18-month-old sister, Caitlín Morgan.

At 25, Cliftondene Drive, the window shattered and the paint bomb exploded over the occupant, a middle-aged woman. Had it been a pipe bomb or a petrol bomb she almost certainly would have been killed or severely disfigured.

At the same time, other members of the gang threw four bricks through the window of Number 22, across the street, showering with glass one of the oldest women in Ireland, 105-year-old, bed-ridden Jane Crudden who was lying in a downstairs bedroom. Ambulance men were called to the scene and evacuated the terrified old lady who was taken to a residential home to recover.

Nigel Dodds, the DUP MP for the area, issued no statement of condemnation that I could find in the unionist press, on radio or television or on the DUP's daily-updated website.

In a press statement the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) reported the attacks but made no reference to who the victims were and who was responsible. In fact, the homes attacked on Wednesday night were the homes of Catholics; the perpetrators were loyalists, and the objective was to drive Catholics out.

Since the IRA ceasefire, Catholics have continued to be killed (the latest, 21-year-old James McMahon, was beaten to death by the UDA in November) and the number of attacks on Catholic homes and properties runs into the thousands.

This is an important factor to consider when Justice Minister Michael McDowell attempts to present the North as a society whose struggle for normality is being thwarted by Irish republicans.

On Friday evening, just 48 hours after those sectarian attacks, the PSNI rammed a van in downtown Belfast containing five men, one of whom, Bobby Tohill, was in an injured condition. There are various accounts of what preceded the ramming, the men being arrested, and Tohill being taken to the hospital.

The nature of the dispute between Tohill and the van's occupants rapidly shifted from speculation to 'fact', on the basis of the opinion of PSNI Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Orde that "it was a Provisional IRA operation."

The alacrity with which the Chief Constable made his pronouncement and thus triggered a series of political attacks on Sinn Féin has tainted the reputation of the PSNI.

In October 2002 Orde was responsible for the televised 'spectacular' raids on Sinn Féin's offices in Stormont, where nothing was found but which took place in parallel with the arrests elsewhere and subsequent charging of three people in relation to an alleged 'IRA spy ring' at the heart of government.

Those charges led to the current impasse, with Ulster Unionists collapsing the executive and the Assembly being suspended.

The political process never recovered from this 'crisis', and it was successfully exploited by the DUP who subsequently emerged from last November's elections as the largest unionist party.

However, those same 'IRA spy ring' charges were withdrawn some weeks ago without an equivalent media fanfare.

Whereas the authorities, within hours, can answer unionist demands for clarification, nationalists, it seems, must wait forever. They have been waiting 15 years for Sir John Stevens to wrap up his investigations into collusion between loyalist paramilitaries, the British army and the RUC Special Branch (which has transferred, unreformed, into the PSNI). And they have been waiting five months for the British government to publish Judge Corey's report and recommendations of public inquiries into several controversial killings, including those of human rights lawyers Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson.

Over the past six years unionists have extrapolated from any alleged subversive incident that might be attributable to republicans, a pretext for excluding Sinn Féin from power-sharing. Pipe bombs found in a Palestinian refugee camp became 'proof' that the IRA was still active.

Sinn Féin was to be held accountable for every stone thrown in nationalist areas. Sinn Féin would be in breach of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), said David Trimble, if it maintained relations with the Basque independence party, Batasuna, after the Spanish government proscribed it. It is never-ending.

FOR nationalists, what's most frustrating is the double standard applied to the conflict and the peace process, despite all the compromises and despite the IRA's decommissioning a large number of weapons on three occasions.

Who is to sanction the British government for repeatedly reneging on reforms it promised at the Weston Park talks? It introduced legislation outside the Agreement to suspend the executive and assembly. And it recently set up an international monitoring commission which excludes the Irish government nominee from examining the bad faith of the British or unionists.

A High Court judge ruled that David Trimble acted illegally when he barred two Sinn Féin ministers from attending meetings of the all-Ireland bodies, yet there were no sanctions against him.

The British also refused to fully co-operate with Judge Barron's inquiry into the Dublin/Monaghan car bombs. They were confident that an Taoiseach wouldn't demand of Tony Blair the details of suspected British collusion with the UVF in the way, for example, that the British prime minister will be confidently demanding of Colonel Gadaffi the details of his dealings with the IRA.

And, of course, as far as the police and the Special Branch is concerned, the alleged new beginning to justice doesn't apply to them. Last Monday a UTV documentary revealed that the Special Branch and the British army had fabricated evidence against two South Down republicans who were imprisoned on remand in 2003 and that the DPP had concealed crucial forensic reports from their defence lawyers.

The PSNI, British Army and the DPP were clearly in breach of the principles of the GFA. Whether they were acting alone or with the sanction of their 'leadership' doesn't appear to concern a lawyer like the Minister of Justice, Michael McDowell, as much as five men in a van.

After Sir Hugh Orde's statement Ian Paisley demanded to meet the Secretary of State, Paul Murphy, to rule on the status of the IRA's ceasefire. An Taoiseach also met Martin McGuinness on Wednesday night to express his concern at the effect this incident could have on the current review of the agreement. Given the DUP's proposals in its Devolution Now document, that review was going nowhere.

The DUP document makes no reference to North-South relations, policing, justice and human rights. Its models for government are insular and give the DUP a veto over nationalists. It envisages the largest nationalist party, Sinn Féin, being excluded from office and its ministerial seats redistributed and gerrymandered between the other parties.

It was just such practices within the failed political entity that was the North, and a sense among many nationalists that Dublin had failed them, that they turned to the IRA over 30 years ago.

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