BBC NEWS | Northern Ireland | Tears flow as families flee

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Ten families from a Protestant housing estate in north Belfast have fled their homes, claiming they are victims of a campaign of sectarian violence.

The BBC's Ireland correspondent, Mark Simpson, who watched the families leave, has been examining the background to the exodus.

It all started eight years ago when a bicycle was thrown through a living room window.

The simmering sectarian tensions came to the boil and the area has never been the same since.

On Thursday, the fears turned to tears, as a group of Protestants - including four generations of one family - packed their belongings and left.

Elizabeth Ferguson was distraught at leaving her home
Elizabeth Ferguson was distraught at leaving her home
No-one was more upset than mother-of-two Elizabeth Ferguson.

As she sobbed, the local MP Nigel Dodds arrived and gave her a hug.

It is unusual to see touchy-feely politics on public display. In north Belfast, it is much easier to spot the hatred.

You don't have to look hard to find vicious sectarian graffiti, vandalised homes, cars sprayed with paint and smashed bottles.

People have lost count of the number of petrol-bomb attacks, burglaries and physical assaults - by both sides.

Catholics and Protestants breathe the same air, and sometimes go to the same shops, but most other things are segregated.

This is what life is like on the so-called peaceline - different schools, different pubs, different football jerseys and, of course, different churches.


The Torrens estate is not the worst part of north Belfast, but it comes close.

It is hard to believe but the houses are only 20 years old; some badly need a visit from a painter and decorator, the others are fit only for a bull-dozer.

Vacant houses in Torrens area
Many of the houses in Torrens area now lie vacant
No wonder the last 10 Protestant families moved out.

But were they forced out? Or did they simply want newly-built houses somewhere else?

The Protestants say they have been intimidated out by Catholics determined to take over the houses on the Torrens estate.

Not true, say their Catholic neighbours across the divide.

One local republican told me: "The reality is the estate became too small to be viable. These people have chosen - admittedly under very difficult circumstances - to live elsewhere."

Chill factor

It is difficult to find anyone in north Belfast whom you might regard as neutral.

The few I spoke to, said there was definitely fault on both sides.

There is no going back for this family, like many others
There is no going back for this family, like many others
But as in most fights, the smallest always comes off worst.

In this case it was the Protestants who left, but in other parts of the city, where Catholics have been in the minority they have been squeezed out.

And the problem is not unique to Belfast. Catholics have been made to feel unwelcome in places like Carrickfergus, Larne and Bushmills.

Protestants on the west bank of Londonderry have been complaining for years about a violent chill-factor in what is a predominantly nationalist city.

These are just some examples; people in both communities could list many others.

One of the political buzz phrases in Northern Ireland is power-sharing, but on the streets it is still very much a case of majority-rule.

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