Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Loyalist protest camp women 'standing up for their culture'

They can’t deny us our Protestant right to our country and our heritage. Enough is enough

Protest camp Twaddell Avenue. Picture Colm O'Reilly
Protest camp Twaddell Avenue. Picture Colm O'Reilly

Meet the loyalist women living inside what they describe as a civil rights camp, at the Ardoyne interface in north Belfast.

For more than 40 days, they have been living inside the Twaddell Avenue camp in north Belfast in a protest over a banned Ardoyne parade.

Flags and slogans hang from the eight-foot railings, along with a picture of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

One large poster, which overlooks the Ardoyne roundabout, reads: ‘Respect Our Culture’.

Inside, there is a caravan, pop-up gazebo and a newly delivered mobile office where regular meetings are held.

The rules are strict — no alcohol; no children unless accompanied by an adult; and no noise — particularly after 9pm.

Elizabeth Clarke, Tina Patrick, Jacqueline McNeelly and Jackie Elliott spend more than eight hours a day inside Twaddell Avenue’s 24 hour protest site — where they have vowed to remain until three north Belfast lodges finish their traditional Twelfth of July route.

But the women — all mothers — face a long wait, as the Parades Commission continue to block the bands’ return.

Sunday Life gained exclusive access to the strict site — normally banned to

the media — where the women explained exactly why they are so passionate about their cause.

Some are prepared to risk their freedom to stop what they call the “erosion” of their British identity.

“We are being left with nothing, so we have no other choice than to be on the ground,” Elizabeth, 44, told Sunday Life.

“I was always brought up in an Orange family — my father was in the Orange lodges all his days, my husband served for that flag and I myself was up in court last Monday for it.

“And when I went to the solicitors on the Friday, he asked me would it be OK if he said that I got caught up in this and that I was sorry for doing this, that and the other.

“I said no, and if you do, I will stand up in court and say no I’m not sorry, and I will do it again if I have to — that’s how strongly I feel about this.”

Mum-of-three Elizabeth — who was given a conditional discharge earlier this month for taking part in an illegal white line flag protest — said she was moved to act over the removal of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall.

She claims to have suffered both verbal and physical abuse since taking part in the protests.

“You have to deal with that,” she said. “Here is more important.”

Elizabeth added: “We are all British here, no matter who likes it, and that flag should not have been taken down.

“It wouldn’t happen in any other country.

“They wouldn’t take the national flag down.

“We have been beaten by the police, it’s not making any difference; people are losing their

jobs, it’s not going to make any difference; we will continue to be here no matter what.”

Not many outside the close knit communities of Twaddell and Woodvale know the camp exists.

Its entrance is a small gap between steel railings and a terraced house, where two people stand guard throughout the day and night.

After 10pm, only those people on duty are allowed inside.

“It's run on a rota basis — four hour slots from 7am to 11pm at night, before the night shift — 11pm to 7am,” said 47-year-old mum-of-six Jackie Elliott.

“You need to give it your full commitment here. But we understand there are people out there who can’t give it their full commitment — we know they are just as passionate.

“It is well structured, and we all, on average, spend eight hours a day in here.”

Twaddell resident, grandmother Tina Patrick, 56, is also part of the camp.

“Why did I get involved in this? Because I am British,” she said.

“I fought in the British army, I know who were the terrorists,” said Tina.

“I saw it (the Troubles) first hand, and many of the republicans that I speak to, I actually carried a montage of their photographs when I was out on duty at night.

“But I’m not saying I won’t speak to them people,” she said.

Sinn Fein fought for a long time for their recognition of being Irish, and no-one is denying them that, but they can’t deny us our Protestant right to our country and our heritage.”

Jacqueline McNeelly, 49, added: “There’s too many people now that feel the same way, and they have sat back for many years, but no longer.

“Like Tina, I have also served in the British army, and there have been a lot of my colleagues murdered by the IRA over the years, and I feel that why should that (the Union flag) be taken away from me?

“There is no way that I will stand for it, I will do all that I can to get the flag back.”

None of the women condone the violence that erupted over the Twelfth of July, in which 44 police officers were injured.

Tina said: “No-one wants that, but when you talk about the riots, compare it to Ardoyne last year; the rioting that went on for three days.

“They brought machine guns onto the streets, they burnt cars, and threw petrol bombs.

“But how long did it take the police to bring plastic bullets (AEP rounds) out? Three days.

“How many were fired? Two rounds.”

She added: “In our community, they reacted within less than an hour.

“17 AEP rounds were fired in that time — 56 in total.

“Is that equality that the police are showing to our community?

“You don’t treat two communities with disparity like that.”

Tina added: “This camp, it’s about our civil rights, it’s about our freedom of expression and it’s about the inequality the Protestant community has been seeing, and suffering, for many years now.

“And it is not just here, it is throughout the province.”

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