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Sectarianism is alive and well - south of the border

Today Bertie Ahern will be the first Taoiseach to meet Ian Paisley: however, the pair won't be talking about politics but the number of Protestant churches being burned on the south side of the border. John Meagher reports on the Protestant communities who are coming under attack in the Republic

Persistent ringing from the telephone woke him from his sleep. It was four in the morning and the Reverend Gordon Dane wondered who was calling him at that hour.

He assumed it was a member of his family or one of his parishioners. It was the Gardai. The last dredges of sleep vanished when he was told his church was on fire.

Rev Dane remembers the night of last July 4 very well. He recalls struggling into his clothes and making his way in a daze to the Free Presbyterian church, just outside the village of Drum, in the western part of Co Monaghan. He was not prepared for the sight that greeted him.

His church was unrecognisable. It's white dash walls were blackened, windows were smashed, thick blankets of smoke billowed into the early morning sky.

Garda squad cars and fire brigades were strewn around the smouldering ruin. Firefighters from nearby Cootehill were dousing a blazing tractor which had been completely destroyed by fire.

``There had been a number of attempts to intimidate members of my community. The odd stone thrown through windows and anti-Protestant slogans,'' he says, ``but I never thought it would go so far that the church would be set alight.''

A Portacabin extension used for Sunday school classes was destroyed, the front hallway damaged and there was smoke damage in the rest of the church. He estimates that £100,000 of damage had been done to the small 100-seater Coragarry Church.

``We are insured and we will get the money to rebuild it. But insurance companies will stop insuring churches if the attacks continue.''

Coragarry Church is located six miles from the border and it is just one of a number of Protestant buildings that have been attacked within the last year. Drumully Church of Ireland (Co Monaghan), Cavan Baptist church, and Protestant halls at Castleblayney and Lisarley (Co Monaghan) have all been attacked.

`The attacks are too vicious and too consistent to be the work of vandals,'' Rev Dane says. ``The Gardai say Republican sympathisers must be responsible. I don't know whether they are disenfranchised youths or people involved in paramilitary activity.

``Members of our congregation are anxious to keep a low profile. They go about their daily lives normally. They integrate seamlessly with the community. We have been unable to hold a service in the church since the attack. We have been forced to use a hall in the village.''

He says most of the 70-strong congregation continue to attend sermons. But some are staying away. They are too afraid to attend. He reckons it will be months before his flock can worship in Coragarry church.

Rev Dane, who is married and has three children, has not been threatened as an individual. But Protestant clergy have been threatened collectively. After several Catholic churches were destroyed in arson attacks in the North last year, the so-called Catholic Reaction Force announced that it would target Protestant clergy working in the Republic.

Garda Superintendent Tom Long, based at Carrickmore in Co Monaghan, says: ``We know this is Mr Paisley's church, and so we are always that bit more careful and send more patrols to it than we would do otherwise. We believe the root cause is vandalism.''

But Rev Dane refutes this suggestion: ``There are too many coincidences in what is going on for it to be simply the work of vandals. Had it been, they would surely have stolen the money the children were collecting for missionaries.''

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Rev Dane believes the Drum community have been victims of anti-Protestant sectarianism. The attack came on the eve of Orange marches across the border. Some of the congregation are members of the Orange Order. In fact the hall which is now acting as the church was formerly used by the Orange lodge in the area. He adds that he has never been a member of the Orange Order.

``I thought we might have had a message of support from the Catholic Church but we didn't. I'm not much surprised, but I have received many messages from ordinary Roman Catholics in the community.''

Fr Seamus Quinn, Roman Catholic curate for the parish of Scotshouse, which includes Drum, says he has ``absolutely no problem with Free Presbyterians''.

`What happened to that church was disgraceful, especially if it was attacked under the name of God. I know very little about that community. The village of Drum is unusual in Ireland in that it is almost entirely inhabited by Protestants. There are practically none of my parishioners in that area of the parish and I would have no reason to go there. I don't even know who the minister is.

``I was on retreat to Lough Derg when I heard about the attack on the church. By the time I got back the hue and cry had died down and it sliped my mind. Had I been here at the time I would have sympathised with the minister. Now that I know the full extent of the suffering of that community I will preach about it within the next couple of weeks.''

Dr Ian Paisley, who laid the foundation stone at Coragarry in 1974, has been a frequent visitor to the church where he has officiated at numerous sermons. He is furious at the attacks on Protestant churches south of the border.

``When the line was drawn across Ireland, 10pc of those living in what became the Republic were Protestant. Now it's down to 2.5pc.

``Pressure has been put on Protestants in so many ways and what has happened is effectively ethnic cleansing. Protestants have stayed quiet for too long.''

Bertie Ahern will be the first Taoiseach to meet with the DUP leader. ``I am looking to Mr Ahern to acknowledge what is going on and want to hear what he intends to do about it,'' he says.

That will make a change from the last time the controversial unionist came face to face with an Irish premier. In the sixties, Paisley famously pelted snowballs at the then Taoiseach, Sean Lemass.

Politics will remain firmly off the agenda. ``I am not talking politics with him, not at all. I have a responsibility for the safety of my congregation and the security of the work being carried out. That is the sole business being discussed.''

Dr Paisley will be joined by Protestant clergy from Cavan and Monaghan, including Rev Gordon Dane. ``Hopefully the government will acknowledge what's happened,'' he says.

Meanwhile Rev Dane is trying to get on with a normal life. ``I intend staying in the Republic,'' the Fermanagh-born minister says. ``I've been minister for this parish for eight years and I enjoy it here.''

But while he hasn't been woken by the Gardai since that morning in early July, he says sleep does not come as easily as before.

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