Analysis: Reported with Prejudice
by Fern Lane
Originally published between July 16-18, 2001
On 11 July the home of two elderly sisters living in the Short Strand area of Belfast was firebombed, forcing the terrified women to leave the house in which they said they had lived for years in peaceful co-existence with their neighbours.
Unusually, for what appeared to be a straightforward sectarian attack, the incident received widespread and detailed media coverage, in notable contrast to that afforded most of the hundreds of sectarian attacks taking place daily across not only Belfast but several other areas of the Six Counties. The story even made it onto the front page of The Guardian, a newspaper that normally confines its very sporadic coverage of sectarian attacks to a few paragraphs six pages in.
On the Twelfth night, a further series of sectarian attacks took place in the Short Strand, when a row of bungalows, all occupied by pensioners, was stoned by a crowd of youths, causing damage to the roofs. Then, on the night of Sunday/Monday, the assailants returned, first throwing flammable liquid onto the roofs, leaving it to soak in to the tiles for a short time before throwing petrol bombs to ignite it. Some 16 bungalows sustained various degrees of damage, ranging from total destruction to severe water and smoke damage. As a consequence, eight or ten traumatised pensioners will have to be rehoused in an area already suffering from a severe shortage of homes, and several others are in urgent need of respite care.
On Monday, as a number of local residents attempted to repair those roofs which could be repaired, shots were fired at them from the Newtownards Road. During the evening, loyalist youths returned to attack the bungalows yet again. As Sinn Féin's Joe O'Donnell, representative for the area, observed, they were there to "finish the job." While they hurled rocks, bottles, and petrol bombs, the youths were heard to shout: "We're going to kill your pensioners. If we can't burn them out, we'll kill them with fright," a reference perhaps to the elderly Catholic woman who died recently soon after being burned out of her home in Lisburn, an incident which received only attenuated coverage.
Despite all this, the BBC only began to run reports from the Short Strand on Tuesday, after serious rioting by loyalist youths had erupted late the previous night, and even then it chose to run it in conjunction with images of disturbances in north Belfast earlier in the day (focusing, no doubt in the interests of "balance," on a couple of teenage boys in Celtic shirts) and providing an adroit visual correlative to the words of the British print media which does not bother to - perhaps is unable to - differentiate between organised sectarian thuggery and a community's response to flagrant injustice. This systemic intellectual laziness was summed up by The Sunday Times, whose story on rioting by Asian communities in England last week (only for the benefit of their British readers, of course,) ran under the racist headline of "We thought only the Irish rioted like this."
Dennis Murray's report for the BBC on the riot in the Short Strand, scandalously, perpetuated the myth that all loyalist violence is merely retaliatory, telling viewers that the trouble had begun only "after reports of gunfire coming from the nationalist side." As ever, the underlying narrative was of heroic police officers keeping two mindless, warring communities apart. (According to Ronnie Flanagan, however, this riot "appeared spontaneous," whereas that in Ardoyne on 12 July was "orchestrated.") At no point did Murray refer to the burning out of the pensioners' bungalows. But he was not alone in the British media in ignoring the incident, which did not receive so much as a mention in The Guardian, the newspaper which made so much of the assault on the two sisters' home.
So what is the difference between these two attacks? Simply that the former was against Protestants and the latter against Catholics. Attention is routinely focused on real or imagined nationalist attacks on Protestants whilst any number of attacks on Catholics by loyalists are ignored and the media continues with its supposedly 'even-handed' approach of suggesting that sectarian attacks come in equal numbers from both communities and that individual acts of vandalism are of the same order as a systematic campaign.
So, for example, some weeks ago the BBC ran images of Protestant families in the loyalist-controlled Glenbryn area of north Belfast leaving their homes, taking whatever possessions they could carry with them, not because they had actually been attacked, but because of some undefined, unspecified threat from nearby nationalists from the Ardoyne, threats which never materialised and which in reality had been fabricated by loyalist paramilitaries. There were no corresponding images of Catholic families, who had not had the time to hang around waiting for camera crews to arrive before fleeing as real paint, petrol and blast bombs rained down on their homes and through their windows.
A quick look through the musings of columnists in both the Irish and British media also confirms that there seems to be an unspoken agreement that any discussion around the issue of sectarianism will confer blame equally on both sides, even when the objective evidence contradicts this.
Between 1 January and 30 June this year there have been around 170 reported sectarian attacks on Catholics and Catholic homes. Many of these incidents have taken the form of loyalist incursions into nationalist areas and have involved several homes, so the true figure is significantly higher. Further, that figure does not include the numerous attacks by loyalists on nationalist politicians, both Sinn Féin and the SDLP, during the election campaign. Many more sectarian attacks on Catholics go unreported, simply because the Catholic community does not have any faith in the RUC. Reported attacks on Protestants and Protestant homes over the same period total less than 20. Last year at least 25 Protestant homes were attacked by loyalist paramilitaries during their feud alone.
What is consistent, however, is the different approach adopted by the RUC to rioting in loyalist areas. Joe O'Donnell points out that, on Monday evening, more gunfire was heard from the Newtownards Road, seemingly this time aimed at crown forces, who had moved into the area. But, he says, "to the best of my knowledge, there were no baton rounds fired. Compare that with what happened in Ardoyne. There was a full-scale riot taking place by loyalists adjacent to the Short Strand, but no plastic bullets were used and there was only one arrest."
The conspicuous difference - a difference consistently and grossly misrepresented in the media - in the nature of sectarianism is that, against Catholics, it is premeditated, orchestrated, sustained and overwhelming. In addition, the UDA has been involved in systematically attacking its own community in order to justify this campaign against Catholic communities. Indeed, it seems that a loyalist from East Belfast has been arrested in connection with the attack on the Protestant sisters' home.
Back in the Short Strand, the media's interest will once again wane to the levels of pre-riot indifference. Says O'Donnell: "This area has been virtually living under siege since the beginning of the summer. No-one has had much sleep. Everyone is suffering, but pensioners are particularly vulnerable. Even on normal days, it's like living in an open prison. What way is this for children to live their summer holidays? What way is this for pensioners to live out their latter years?
Like many others in nationalist areas, he is mystified by the silence of the media over what has happened in recent days in the Short Strand. "Most people from the media who have come here have been staggered by the devastation, but then they have gone back and said that perhaps two houses were burned, minimising what has happened. They have completely misrepresented the situation here."
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