Police have been investigating violence directed at Armagh churches in recent weeks. Suspicious devices were left at churches in Newtownabbey and Ballyclare and a church in Whitehead was targeted by arsonists. No arrests have been made and no motive given.
UTV reports a Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) spokesperson said, “The investigations are at an early stage and all lines of inquiry remain open at this time.” They have not ruled out a sectarian motive and said they are putting “considerable resources” into determining the culprit and preventing future attacks.
“Dedicated targeted patrols have been implemented throughout the district and crime prevention advice given as appropriate. A number of forensic exhibits have been seized from the respective scenes and are currently under examination,” said a PSNI spokesperson.
Last Saturday a hoax security alert at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea in Greencastle relocated Mass to another church at the last minute. Two viable pipe bombs were left at Sacred Heart Church in Ballyclare and people were forced to evacuate the church and neighboring homes.
Tensions in the community have increased while the investigation continues. Oliver McMullan, Sinn Fein MLA for East Antrim said, “People are scared of saying anything at the minute. East Antrim seems to be getting the brunt of all of this. All of these chapels that are getting attacked are in east Antrim.”
He argues that the attacks are done by Unionists, saying, “There’s an orchestrated campaign by unionist paramilitaries to do this.”
PUP spokesperson Phil Harrison criticized those who carried out the attacks and those making what he called “irresponsible comments” which increase tension. He said, “The police are saying that they’re keeping an open opinion on exactly what’s happening and my message to Sinn Fein is quite simple.
“Wait until the facts become available. What’s happened is irresponsible comments by Sinn Fein aren’t helping community relations. Let’s deal with the facts, not the fiction.”
Police are currently investigating a suspicious fire at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Whitehead, which started in the boiler room in the morning of December 23. Police are working with the local clergy to find the guilty party, but no arrests have been made.
The protests come after sectarian violence in Belfast last December, which was agitated by the vote to fly the Union Jack less often over Stormont and the earlier census which showed an increase in Irish identity and a decrease in the number of citizens who identify as British only.