Belfast Telegraph

Threat to 'raze Skainos community centre to the ground' in wake of IRA bomber invite

BY CHRIS KILPATRICK

Threats have been made to burn down an east Belfast community centre just days after a visit by a former IRA bomber.

A series of menacing messages have been circulated on social media since the appearance of Patrick Magee at the Skainos Centre, it can be revealed.

The Belfast Telegraph has also learned police were so concerned by the hostility of protesters outside last Thursday's event, the audience was asked not to applaud afterwards, giving police time to escort Magee secretly out of the building through a side entrance.

Prominent clergyman Harold Good was scathing in his criticism of Unionist politicians' "deafening silence" following the violent scenes.

Around 100 people threw stones and other missiles at the Skainos Centre as Magee – the man behind the 1984 bomb attack on Brighton's Grand Hotel – prepared to take part in a discussion evening.

Ahead of the visit, anti-Republican slogans were daubed on the walls of the complex.

The £21m complex is the hub of an urban regeneration project in inner east Belfast, described as "providing shared space for community transformation and renewal".

It also houses 150 people on the site, mostly from the local area.

However, it has been targeted by loyalist extremists following the Magee event, entitled 'Listening to your Enemies'.

Among the sinister messages is one from a member of a well-known loyalist family in the area, which suggested Skainos "be razed to the ground".

There are concerns some of those behind the threats are affiliated with the UVF.

"People won't talk, as they are terrified," this newspaper was told. "I know some of those who work at the centre, and they are fearful.

"There is a small section of this community holding the rest to ransom, and people are afraid."

Former Methodist president Mr Good, one of the two independent witnesses to oversee the decommissioning of IRA weapons, called on elected representatives in east Belfast "to give true leadership".

"Where indeed are the voices of the duly elected public representatives of unionism?" he wrote on the website eamonnmallie.com.

"I was one of the many who ran the gauntlet to enter the Skainos Centre on Thursday evening when we were subjected to a barrage of abuse and expletives from an incoherent and largely hooded rabble.

"While without permission, was this an understandable expression of legitimate fear and frustration? If so, one would rightly have expected their sympathetic elected representatives to stand with them – but not one in sight.

"If, on the other hand, this was an unruly mob, fuelled by raw naked sectarianism, whose primary motive was to exploit this opportunity for an attack upon the PSNI, then it should be named for what it was.

"But once again, deafening silence from Unionist public representatives."

Community workers and PUP councillor John Kyle approached protesters in an effort to calm the situation.

"The anger he encountered was vivid, real and deep," said one of those alongside Mr Kyle.

"It was so deep as to be incoherent. There was nothing that was easy to hear, and not a thing said in a considered or intelligible way."

Afterwards, First Minister Peter Robinson said those involved in the violence had damaged their own community.

"Those rioting on the streets did not challenge republicans; instead they took the focus away from a debate which heard how the republican terror campaign ended in failure," he said.

"Protest is a legitimate part of our freedoms which must be protected, but only when carried out within the law."

Magee appeared at the event alongside Jo Berry, whose father Sir Anthony Berry was one of five people killed in the IRA bomb attack during the Tory party conference.

STORY SO FAR

Police lines came under attack, with four officers suffering minor injuries in clashes outside the Skainos Centre during an event at which former IRA bomber Patrick Magee appeared.

Around 100 loyalists threw missiles at the centre, with audience members verbally abused by protesters on their way into the building.

Ahead of the event, anti-republican graffiti was scrawled on the centre.

 

A mission of tolerance poisoned by sectarian hate

Held up as a positive sign for Northern Ireland's future, the Skainos Centre's mission is the promotion of inclusion and tolerance.

Opened in November 2012, the £21m community regeneration initiative, which stands on the busy Lower Newtownards Road, is used by all sections of society, despite its location in the heart of staunchly loyalist east Belfast.

The First and deputy first minister showed their support for the project, taking part in the opening ceremony.

"The work taking place here is an excellent example of how, in many areas, local people can lead the way towards building a more united and shared society," Peter Robinson said at time.

"I have no doubt that this project will succeed in bringing together people with very different histories and diverse backgrounds – because Skainos is reaching out and connecting with the spirit of our times."

Mr McGuinness added: "I think it will give encouragement and inspire people to recognise that within communities there are people working, not just in communities but cross-community, to ensure that as we move forwards, we recognise the need to develop shared spaces that all of us can use for the benefit of society as a whole."

However, the controversy following IRA bomber Patrick Magee's visit has embroiled the complex in a poisonous sectarian row. It is the first very public fallout involving Skainos and its neighbours.

Since opening, the centre has been widely praised for the work which takes place there.

Described as an 'urban village in the inner city', the complex features Ireland's only vertical garden, a day nursery and a cafe, as well as an auditorium.

It models new approaches to economic activity, training and education, access to services, housing and community interaction, which not only includes the traditional communities in Northern Ireland, but the growing ethnic minority community in east Belfast.

Last month, a new Irish language centre was opened at Skainos to cope with an increasing number of those keen to take it up. The Irish centre was opened by Sam Evans, who was a founder member of the Progressive Unionist Party.

The Skainos Complex is also home to around 150 people, many of who previously had nowhere to live.

The overall scheme was funded by the Department for Social Development, the EU Peace III Programme, the International Fund for Ireland and East Belfast Mission.

The events of the past week have brought rogue elements within the community in which Skainos is based into confrontation with the project.

It now desperately needs community leaders and those with influence in that area to demonstrate the very values and vision that the centre and its staff have so effectively espoused.

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