Belfast families living in fear on mixed estate where Catholics forced to flee
Residents of a mixed housing development in east Belfast have spoken of their fears after Catholic neighbours were forced to flee their homes because of loyalist threats.
The UVF has been blamed for threatening four Catholic families, two of whom have children as young as 18 months old, in Cantrell Close, just off the Ravenhill Road.Cantrell Close threats: Active PSNI investigation after Catholic families flee homes
The social housing project, which is part of Stormont's Together: Building A United Community programme, was supposed to be a flagship cross-community development.
However, the sinister threats have left residents wondering whether the scheme was too ambitious.
"It's primitive - it's like saying people with blue eyes have to get out but people with brown eyes can stay," a Catholic tenant who lost a relative in a UVF bomb told the Belfast Telegraph.
"No one has came to my door, but I am worried and I will be worried tonight."
The anxious woman, aged in her 50s, returned to Northern Ireland last year with a sense of optimism after spending 30 years in London. But her excitement quickly turned to disappointment. "I grew up in a very mixed area of Belfast and I liked the idea of living in this development, but now I'm apprehensive, which is such a shame," she said.
The defiant resident, who insisted she would not be moving, described having "great relationships" with her Protestant neighbours and said that - with the exception of UVF flags appearing on lampposts in June - she had never experienced any tension in the area.
"There should have been zero tolerance with regard to flags," she added. "I was really annoyed and I believe more should have been done - it's nearly October and they are still up."
Her Protestant friend and neighbour, who knows two of the families who fled their homes, said she was shocked by the intimidation.
"I feel terrible for these families," she added. "They are just normal people like me, but they are gone and I never even got to say goodbye."
The young mother, originally from the Shankill area, moved into the development last year and lives there with her partner and 18-month-old daughter.
She previously participated in trips aimed at fostering good relationships among residents.
"Both the couples I know had children the same age as my daughter and the kids enjoyed playing together," she said.
"I just feel lucky that my daughter's not old enough to ask where her friends have gone, or why they left, because she would be terrified."
The disillusioned mum plans to send her little girl to a mixed school one day and had hoped that living in a mixed area would allow her to escape sectarian attitudes, but her hopes have been dashed.
"I am disappointed,"she said. "This is major setback because the whole aim of this project was to build a shared community, but it's going to end up being another Protestant residential area of east Belfast."
The Housing Executive confirmed a number of families had reported themselves as homeless, citing sectarian intimidation as the reason.
DUP South Belfast MP Emma Little Pengelly (left) and party MLA Christopher Stalford issued a joint statement condemning the threats as "absolutely disgraceful".
They also said those behind the threats must face the "full weight of the law".
South Belfast MLA Clare Bailey claimed the failure to remove loyalist flags had culminated in families being targeted and stressed that serious questions needed to be answered.
"The whole situation is deplorable," she said.
"There was always the potential for this to happen, so where were the mitigation measures? Where is the strategy for dealing with this and where's the responsibility?
"Everyone seems a bit impotent and it's outrageous."
Sinn Fein MLA Mairtin O Muilleoir claimed the east Belfast UVF was behind the "blatantly sectarian" intimidation.
He said that residents raised concerns with him when flags first appeared in the area.
He also called for "voices within unionism to speak out and show leadership".
"We also need the authorities to take a stand against sectarianism to tackle this issue adequately," Mr O Muilleoir said.
Chief Superintendent Chris Noble said the PSNI would not speculate on who was behind the threats.
But he added: "Whoever it is clearly has no regard whatsoever for what the people of east Belfast want in terms of a community that can work effectively together and without division."
The President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, Rev Dr Laurence Graham, pleaded with the DUP to co-operate with other public representatives to ensure the cross-community project was not "sabotaged".
"I call upon all those in public life, some of whom have condemned this situation as 'absolutely disgraceful', to work together to ensure that those wanting to live in these homes can continue to do so," he said.