Loyalist protesters attack Catholics on way from Mass in Ballymena

BY THE standards of the Northern "troubles" it was a minor affray.

BY THE standards of the Northern "troubles" it was a minor affray.

But until this weekend, the peaceful, prosperous, 80 per cent Protestant town of Ballymena had never seen anything quite like it: a burning bus blocking the road to Belfast petrol bombs thrown at the RUC Catholics dragged from their cars and roughed up and around 300 loyalists trying to harass people attending Saturday night Mass in the working class district of Harryville.

Saturday night was the 12th week in succession that pickets had been placed on the local Catholic church, a small but ugly leg lacy of last summer's sectarian confrontations throughout the North. In recent weeks the numbers have been dwindling as the nights got colder.

But the previous Sunday's refusal by the RUC to allow an Orange church parade to pass protesting Catholics into the largely Catholic village of Dunloy, northwest of Ballymena, brought the crowds out again. The young men from Harryville and the Doury Road were blocking the road outside the church an hour before 6 o'clock Mass began.

Large squads of police, beaded by the RUC's "riot squads", sealed off the road about 100 yards on either side of the church. There was no question, as had been the practice, of allowing the protesters to gather on the pavement opposite the church to shout abuse at worshippers.

The cars of the 200 or so worshippers were funnelled in through a well protected back street to a side entrance, well out of sight of the demonstrators. Father Eamon Cowan, one of the two Vincentian curates who minister in Harryville, said Mass, and less than an hour later the cars escaped in convoy again.

On the way out, at least four cars were attacked, and some occupants were hauled out and roughed up. One woman was taken to hospital with facial and shoulder injuries after a rock was thrown through her windscreen.

A local SDLP councillor, Mr Declan O'Loan, who had to drive through a gauntlet of bottles and youths trying to jump on his car, said he was "very saddened" at such angry and aggressive protests against "people going to an ordinary church and forced to go to Mass in such frightening circumstances".

A liberal man, he believed the majority of Catholics in Dunloy would not have objected to the previous weekend's small Orange parade being allowed through the village.

Down the road the demonstrators were more angry about the RUC than local Catholics. They had no obvious leaders or spokesmen, although the involvement of a notorious UVF man from nearby Ahoghill is widely rumoured, and were hostile to journalists.

However, a young member of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, a small evangelical denomination which usually shuns politics, said he had to come down because he felt so strongly about the issue. "In Dunloy, a Catholic town, the RUC didn't allow us go to church. Yet, here in Harryville, they're helping the Roman Catholics to go. I understand they have to uphold the law, but why not uphold it evenly and fairly? Basically, the police are siding with the Catholics."

Another man was more blunt. "If Dunloy's a Catholic town and Protestants aren't allowed there why is there a chapel slap in the middle of Harryville, a 98 per cent Protestant village?"

An RUC man said the two situations were not comparable. "This is pure, gut sectarianism. If the Ancient Order of Hibernians were marching along here with a band it would be different. But these Catholic people are just going to church as individuals."

Ballymena, the first northern town to have a DUP council majority, is not a place where Protestants find it easy to speak up for their Catholic neighbours. Sectarianism is never far from the surface. DUP councillors failed to turn up for the lighting of the town's Christmas lights recently after a rumour went around that a Catholic priest would be taking part.

On Saturday, two Quakers travelled from Newry and Bangor to be with the town's beleaguered Catholics as they worshipped.

But after an initial statement of condemnation when the protests began, no local Protestant minister has made any significant gesture of solidarity, by, for example, publicly visiting the besieged church or its priests.