St Matthews Church prior to being attacked
The blog comes to you this evening from a very tired author. Following Down's victory over Laois on Saturday evening, the Short Strand Down Supporters Club headed for home(completely soaked to the skin i might add!!).
That evening a number of bonfires were being lit across unionist / loyalist parts of Béal Feirste.
Thankfully there was no major incidents on this side of the town at least.
Sunday came and we got into our usual points for the burning of the bonfire; I had joined a number of other community representatives in meeting with the PSNI earlier in the week to ensure that their operation was satisfactory and hindering as few residents as possible.
Thankfully things were quiet last night, a number of bonfires were lit, a barrage of loud, ridiculous music was blasted across the city, but with the exception of that and a few minor exchanges this part of the city saw very little incidents.
I am thankful for that!
It is a result, primarily, of the ongoing work being carried out at a cross community level in this part of East Belfast. I believe Republicans remain committed to ensuring a peaceful summer for everyone, I believe there are many within Unionism who feel the same. However there does remain those who cling to the old days of telling the croppies to lie down.
That must be overcome at both a leadership and grassroots level within the Unionist family.
An example, was yet another attack on Saint Matthews Chapel, a building that has seen it's fair share of paint bomb, petrol bomb, blast bomb, pipe bomb and gun attack during it's time on the Newtonards Road (a place of worship for this community has been there since 1831).
I recieved a phone call early yesterday morning informing me that the Chapel had been attacked with paint thrown all around the front door and that a memorial cross in the grounds had been tampered with also.
Like many people, on countless occasions before, I headed to the grounds of Saint Matthews.
I chatted briefly with some PSNI personnel who were at the scene telling them they needed to use the CCTV they insisted they needed at that part of Bryson Street and find those responsible. I also spoke with the local Parish Priest Fr Seán Gildmore, who looked how you would expect a Parish Priest to look when someone commits such a vile act on a place of worship.
I return to the issue of leadership; a number of months back I received a phone call very like the one I got yesterday. On that occasion it was from Joe O'Donnell, a friend and comrade, himself a former Sinn féin rep for this area. Joe has been involved in sterling cross community work with countless representatives throughout East Belfast but particularly with the East Belfast Mission.
Joe informed me that morning that the memorial garden on the Newtonards Road in rememberance of the men killed on 27th June 1970 had been attacked and vandalised with paint. There and then Joe and I took the decision that we needed to stand with the people at the bottom of the Newtonards Road, understanding completely we probably wouldn't be very welcome, and tell them very clearly that those attacking the memorial were not Republican, they weren't motivated by Republicanism and they certainly weren't representative of the Short Strand Community.
So we headed off, now joined by well known community stalwart and activist Bernie McCrory of the Short Strand Community Forum. As we headed to the junction of Bryson Street and the Newtonards Road we collectively took a very deep breath; this was unprecedented, no one had ever crossed this particular line in such an open and public way.
I recall seeing the scores of people, many understandably upset, some relatives of the victims openly weeping, I saw numerous TV crews and photographers who immediately began snapping our pictures. I noticed a number of senior political and church representative who I had met with on numerous occasions before, head away from us as opposed to meeting us in the same fashion they had on other occasions; that was particularly disappointing.
I was approach by a young woman and told to 'get the f**k back over to your own side of the road'. I informed her I was here to condemn what had happened and that we needed to maintain the links so tentatively built up over a difficult period, that that was best for everyone.
A number of ordinary residents understood this, they didn't hide their anger though, and to be fair we didn't expect them to. Many of the relatives told us what was on their minds but again, we understood they needed an outlet, and here we were, three faces from the Short Strand right beside the damaged memorial.
The fact remains that the people who carried that attack out have no political, social or even cultural motivation; they most certainly aren't representative of the people in the Short Strand who know very well the pain and suffering that comes with loss and therefore the respect which must be shown to the dead.
Another sad fact which remains is that during that difficult Sunday morning, those same leaders I mentioned earlier disappeared; they faded into the background or they weren't even present. They allowed us to stand alone to explain the process that we have collectively engaged in to try and bring some sort of peace to the people living along the 'interface' in that part of Belfast.
Once again when I took a walk round to Saint Matthews yesterday morning I did so alone, while a very clear opportunity existed for the leaders within Unionism and Loyalism to take the chance and stand against this attack, that chance was missed, for whatever reason I am not sure.
What remains certain throughout is that the work and engagement will continue, we will continue to meet and address our shared issues, we will continue to sit down and secure a better standard of living for the people who live in what is classed as the 9th most socio-economically deprived ward in the north of Ireland.
However we must also lead and stand up to those who would attempt to tarnish our respective communities, stand up to those so called 'leaders' whose word and deed create the space and the mentality for attacks on Catholic Churches.
I look forward to quieter times ahead, as I write I am aware that the day isn't over yet.
Wherever sectarianism or anti community activity rears its ugly head we must all, collectively have the courage to face it down.