Northern Ireland: Unite against sectarianism

A fifteen year old Catholic school student, Michael McIlveen, was brutally assaulted in a sectarian attack in Ballymena town, County Antrim, on 7 May. He made it home but then collapsed and was taken to hospital where he died two days later.

Ballymena is largely Protestant with a 20% Catholic minority. In recent years there has been a sharp increase in sectarian polarisation in the town with frequent assaults and confrontations between groups of Catholic and Protestant young people wielding hurling sticks and baseball bats.

Several years ago there was a prolonged sectarian protest outside a Catholic church in the Harryville area of the town. Given the level of violence it was clear that someone would be killed sooner or later.

Michael’s family took a clear anti-sectarian stance after his death calling for no retaliation and condemning all sectarian attacks. When Michael’s body arrived at his home the family played an anti-sectarian song, "There Were Roses", to the crowd outside. At his funeral his coffin was carried by young people wearing both Glasgow Celtic and Rangers football tops.

Whilst there are fewer sectarian murders today than was the case a few years ago, Michael’s murder is a stark reminder of just how divided Northern Ireland is at present.

All the mainstream political parties condemned Michael’s murder, but did so in a one-sided way. These parties of course base themselves on sectarian division and are part of the problem not the solution.

For united, working class action

Socialist Youth, the Socialist Party’s youth wing, intervened in Ballymena in the days following the murder, putting forward a programme to counter all sectarian attacks.

The Socialist Youth leaflet argued "the best response to Michael’s killing would be a united mass mobilisation of people from the working-class communities across Ballymena and from young people from all the schools in the area, saying ’Enough is enough-all sectarian attacks must end now’ ".

Fifteen members leafleted outside all the schools, held stalls outside both the town shopping centres on the Saturday following Michael’s death and organised a meeting open to all school students two days after Michael’s funeral.

The response has been positive. A number of young people have come forward and Socialist Youth hopes to form a branch in the town in the coming weeks.

The struggle against sectarian attacks and for a better life for young working-class people doesn’t end with Michael’s funeral. The best way to mark his short life is to build a united movement of young people in Ballymena that can challenge sectarianism in all its forms.

"Unite against all sectarian attacks"

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May 2006