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Poisonous Ardoyne stalemate at an end but venom still infects our society

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Orange Order parade passes off peacefully, said the headlines. As always in Northern Ireland, the truth of that statement depends entirely on who you ask.

The lodges involved in the long-running dispute in north Belfast did finally pass Ardoyne shops without incident after an agreement was brokered, bringing to an end a stand-off that has sparked some of the worst civil disorder in recent memory.

The presence of 600 PSNI officers helped to ensure that it did so, and most people probably consider it a pity that this couldn't have happened right at the start, sparing the community from three years of sectarian tension, ill-feeling, and a massive policing bill.

But it didn't pass without bitterness. This is Northern Ireland, which meant there was an inevitable protest against the deal, and that protest - as protests have a habit of doing when tempers are short and those taking part are fired up with an intoxicating sense of grievance - turned nasty.

Much of the anger was directed at local priest Fr Gary Donegan. After 15 years in Ardoyne this was his last day on the job before moving to a new parish, and some locals clearly decided that a fitting way to mark the occasion was to throw insults at him, repeatedly chanting "shame on you", and shouting "you're not wanted here", and calling him a "c***" amongst other similarly charming names.

His crime: to support an agreement that ended over a thousand days of poisonous stalemate.

Fr Donegan was typically stoical, saying: "I'm big and ugly enough to take any stick." That attitude does him proud, but he shouldn't have to take such vicious abuse from anyone. Having it all wasn't an option for either side. Compromise or chaos was the only choice.

Even more menacing was the threat directed at Sunday Life reporter Christopher Woodhouse at the end of the same protest. He was approached by Gerard McCusker, brother of SDLP councillor Paul McCusker, and told: "I'm coming after you, I'm watching you, you scumbag c***… you better watch yourself." McCusker then went on to warn Woodhouse that he might have "a bad fall" one night.

The threat, which can be clearly heard and seen on video, is now being investigated by the police, and the National Union of Journalists has strongly condemned what went on. Fine words, however, are unlikely to make reporters feel safe from sinister thugs who seem to think that they can throw their weight around with impunity under the guise of so-called legitimate protest.

What was almost more sickening was how no one around that morning seemed to find it shocking that a journalist just doing his job was being threatened with violence, much less intervened in his defence.

That this was a mere matter of days after the 15th anniversary of the murder of Sunday World investigative reporter Martin O'Hagan by loyalists only made what occurred all the more deplorable. If journalists are still not safe from intimidation on the streets of Belfast so deep into a process that was meant to bring peace and normality, then something remains seriously wrong in this society.

Gerard McCusker is a disgrace to himself and any cause that he claims to represent. If the Greater Ardoyne Residents Collective don't utterly condemn and disown him, and all the other low lifes who used Saturday's protest as an excuse for bullying and bigotry, then we should draw our own conclusions about their bona fides.

It would be foolish, after all, to brush off this thuggery as the actions of an unrepresentative minority of rabble-rousers. Trouble has too often been excused in Northern Ireland as the work of a few bad apples; but bad apples have a habit of infecting other apples, and protests around parades have always been a fertile breeding ground for the canker of fanaticism. The people in Ardoyne who behaved so disgracefully over the weekend may be nasty pieces of work, but they're not stupid. They know exactly what they're doing and what they're brewing. All it needs for them to thrive is for good men and women to do nothing.

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