Rasharkin: Co Antrim village poisoned by sectarianism
Nestling in the rolling hills of the countryside, Rasharkin looks like many other quiet Northern Ireland villages.
The first sign that something different is happening here are the TV news vans parked on the narrow Main Street. On closer inspection, fire-blackened and smashed windows reveal something sinister is going on.
Although only around 1,000 people live here, the Co Antrim village has been gathering headlines more associated with sectarian hotspots in bigger towns.
Until recent years Rasharkin rarely made the news. However, over the past two years tensions surrounding a contentious loyalist band parade have spilled over into a series of sectarian attacks. Rasharkin is now known more for violence than its spectacular views of the north Antrim countryside.
As usual in Northern Ireland, both sides of the divide blame each other. Nationalists claim the parade has increased in size and has paramilitary trappings, while unionists ask why republican protests have sprung up surrounding a parade which previously passed off peacefully.
They also claim there has been a concerted campaign against Protestant residents in the predominantly Catholic village.
Last weekend the violence erupted once more. The home of the Catholic mother of Premier League footballer Chris Baird was hit with a petrol bomb and a letter containing a bullet was pushed through the door of a Protestant woman's home.
Many people have been left asking how this once quiet |village has become a hotbed of sectarian tension.
The Protestant woman who received the bullet was said to be “shaking like a leaf”.
A neighbour told the Belfast Telegraph how the disabled woman had been left distressed by the sinister incident.
Describing the woman as quiet and having a lot of Catholic friends, the neighbour, who didn't want to be named, said: “I really don't understand what was behind it.
“She was shaking like a leaf. It's ridiculous.”
Walking down the quiet street yesterday the few people who were out were reluctant to talk about the ongoing disputes. Many declared themselves “fed up” with the attacks. Others said they hoped the people behind it would “wise up”.
There is a sense of fear among the locals about what's happening in their village — people are afraid to speak out in case they become the next victim.
One girl — another neighbour of the woman who received a bullet through her letterbox — described the situation as “really awful” and “scary”.
She said Protestant people in the village feel they are being targeted by people who “want Rasharkin to be one religion”.
“You can't even walk up and down the street on your own because the abuse you get is unreal,” the 17-year-old, who did not wish to be named, said.
Sculptor Chris McCaughan, whose house has been targeted a number of times because he is Protestant, said this latest incident had left him feeling scared and “very uncomfortable”.
He said there was no doubt both sides of the community were suffering as the result of a small minority and said Catholics are as frightened to come forward as Protestants.
In the centre of the town an Irish tricolour flies on top of a telegraph pole and the Orange hall is covered in sectarian graffiti as ordinary people walk past to get their groceries or take their children to school.
Businessman Sean Peacock said people are “terrified” for the safety of their children.
But he said the town was “far from” divided, and most people wanted to see an end to the trouble. This is a view shared by both the main parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, who have called for dialogue to end the tensions.
Representing Sinn Fein in Rasharkin is Stormont’s youngest MLA, Daithi McKay. The 28-year-old is one of the new breed of republican politicians, well-spoken and presented with no link to past violence.
If Rasharkin is to emerge from the violence then it is people like McKay and his unionist counterparts who must do the work on the ground before next year’s march to reduce tensions.