United action to stop all sectarian attacks!
The brutal assault on Michael McIlveen in the centre of Ballymena on 7 May, and his death two days later, has highlighted the ongoing problem of sectarian violence but has also shown how working class people on both sides can come together to put an end to such attacks.
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. This division shows itself in the greater than ever geographical separation of Catholics and Protestants. A majority of people, and a large majority of working class people, live in areas which are more than 90% Catholic or Protestant.
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.
This increased separation has resulted in the North side of the town becoming more and more Catholic. Young people from North Ballymena are at physical risk if they attempt to use facilities in the town centre. Whilst Catholics are most at risk, the attacks are two-way with some young Catholics carrying out sectarian attacks on Protestants. Several years ago there was a prolonged sectarian protest outside a Catholic church in the Harryville area of the town and Loyalist paramilitaries have carried out hundreds of sectarian petrol bomb attacks in the area over the last number of years. Given the level of violence, it was clear that someone would be killed sooner or later.
All the mainstream political parties condemned Michael’s murder, but did so in a one-sided way, taking the opportunity to have a go at "the other side". These parties of course base themselves on sectarian division and are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
There were several probable revenge attacks after Michael’s murder and some young people traded insults and threats in the BeBo chatroom. Loyalist activists from the Ballykeel estates began patrolling the town centre to "protect" young Protestants who they claimed were under threat.
In contrast 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 Tommy Sand’s 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.
The Socialist Party and its predecessors have a long and proud history of activity in the Ballymena area. Socialist Youth, the Socialist Party’s youth wing, intervened in the town 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’ ".
15 members leafleted outside all the schools on two occasions, 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 struggle against sectarian attacks and for a better life for working class people doesn’t end with Michael’s funeral. The best way to mark his short life is to build a united movement in Ballymena, that could spread across Northern Ireland, and challenge sectarianism in all its forms.
The trade union movement is key to building such a movement, although it is currently poorly organised in North Antrim. The local Trades Council, for example, no longer exists.
There is every reason to believe that working people in the area will respond if given a lead. The trade union organised demonstrations against sectarian attacks in the 1990’s brought several thousand people on to the streets in Ballymena on several occasions.
When a young worker was murdered in nearby Antrim, as he waited for his lift to work, his workmates in the F G Wilson engineering factory walked out. When Danny McColgan was murdered in 2002, his fellow postal workers in Rathcoole in South East Antrim walked out.
The trade union movement has a duty to act. It should call together shop stewards and other activists in the main workplaces in the Ballymena area and form anti-sectarian committees.
The committees should broaden to include young people and genuine community groups. If such committees are to tackle sectarian attacks in a serious way, they should mount anti-sectarian patrols in the town centre to prevent further attacks. A resolute stand can stop all the sectarian attacks. Inaction will ensure more young people suffer the terrible fate of Michael McIlveen.