Everyone interested in developing a better society in the north of Ireland should be watching closely to see how the PSNI- and politicians- react to the battle for control of a working class community in Bangor over the next few days, weeks and months.
The brutal attack on a local volunteer community worker, Aaron McMahon, can be viewed as a blatant attempt by loyalist paramilitaries to assert their power and authority over a working-class community which reacted adversely to paramilitary attempts to lay claim to the area over the past nine months.
This Belfast Telegraph article gives some background to the story, but a locally produced report from the summer of 2015, CVCA_FINAL-FINAL-FINAL-___Report_Community_Engagement confirms that this local battle for hearts and minds has been building up from early Spring.
The document is worth reading as it illustrates how both the PSNI and politicians have failed to robustly act to defend the overwhelming number of residents who clearly view the erection of the loyalist flags as an act of intimidation- in an exclusively loyalist area. ‘Control’ of the local bonfire site also appears to be an issue.
Even more interesting is the results of the local poll which found that 48% of residents either wanted no flags flown at all or only flags flown from the properties of residents- a figure worth remembering when unionist politicians attempt to justify the erection of loyalist flags of any hue in mixed residential areas across Belfast and beyond.
When asked who should take the lead in resolving the local flags issue, the residents of this loyalist community were clear: some 58% identified the PSNI. One of the comments included in the response to this question was “Why are the PSNI and politicians running scared on this issue?”
The results for questions posed relating to the inclusion of tyres on the local bonfire produced similar replies, with the largest number of respondents wanting the PSNI to lead in resolving the issue.
Less than two months ago, amidst some fanfare, a Loyalist Communities Council was formed with the apparent objective to end loyalist paramilitarism. Many were rightly cynical that, some 21 years on from the paramilitary ceasefires, a new process was being launched (and likely funded) to eradicate the festering sore of paramilitarism which blights many working class communities.
The loyalists involved in the LCC initiative made great play of being interested in developing the educational prospects of working class protestant children in their communities.
It is with great irony then, to note that the principal of the local primary school saw fit to write a letter clearly written in exasperation at the impact of the paramilitary presence in the local housing estate. The letter is included in the report and has been pasted in full below:
Annex 1 – Letter from Clandeboye School Principal
Good afternoon, 17th April 2015
I am emailing to voice my concern over an issue which has arisen in the Clandeboye area over the past number of weeks.
This afternoon I stood outside a family home to show respect to the family of Adam Owens, a former pupil of Clandeboye Primary School. Hundreds of young people, some of whom were taken ill with grief and had medical attention at the scene, followed Adam’s coffin as it left his mother’s home.
As we stood watching this heart-breaking scene UDA flags blew in the wind. Why? Are these not illegal symbols? I have had parents expressing concern about these flags as this is not a true representation of who lives or contributes to life in the Clandeboye area.
As someone who is working to develop the young people in this area and who is currently helping to research and target under-achievement and lack of aspiration in the young boys of this area, it angers, frustrates and saddens me that these symbols are allowed to be flown in an area which is showing signs of positivity and improvement.
It is my understanding that since the opening of the new Clandeboye playground, property prices have increased and there has been a quick turnaround time on rentals. Pupil numbers at Clandeboye Primary School are increasing on a weekly basis with numbers going from 200 when I arrived in September 2013 to 267 in September 2015.
The Clandeboye community is a caring, collaborative people who are looking for a positive , inclusive future for their children and grandchildren. I would now ask that political representatives demonstrate their support for this and look forward to a response regarding the removal of these flags.
Julie Thomas Principal
Clandeboye Primary School
All of which leads to the obvious question.
Quite apart from the roles and responsibilities of the PSNI and politicians in upholding the law and acting to support local residents, can we now expect the newly-formed Loyalist Communities Council to prove its worth and support a local community worker- and dedicated educationalist- who clearly have the best interest of working-class people at heart?