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Sinn Fein's west Belfast 'republic' rots in poverty


VANITY PROJECT: The proposed development of Casement Park has been opposed by both local residents and the emergency services, who have voiced safety concerns

VANITY PROJECT: The proposed development of Casement Park has been opposed by both local residents and the emergency services, who have voiced safety concerns

VANITY PROJECT: The proposed development of Casement Park has been opposed by both local residents and the emergency services, who have voiced safety concerns

Casement Park is the GAA stadium in west Belfast that is inextricably linked with the lynching of the two British Army corporals, David Howes and Derek Wood, in March 1988.

During the attack the two men were stripped and dragged into the stadium, beaten for up to 15 minutes and then thrown from the top of a high terrace wall onto the pavement at the back of the stadium. They were then dragged across Andersonstown Road to a car park and both were shot in the head.

The image of a local priest, Fr Alec Reid, kneeling over one of the bodies, administering the Last Rites, is one of the iconic images of the horrors that beset Northern Ireland in the 'Troubles' period.

One of those convicted of murdering the corporals, Harry Maguire, heads the publicly funded Community Restorative Justice Committee in west Belfast and is a locally prominent Sinn Fein supporter.

Sinn Fein, and particularly 'former' members of the IRA, hold hundreds of such publicly funded 'community' positions in west Belfast. Party members or near relatives have also acquired substantial commercial interests.

The local newspaper, the Andersonstown News, which carries a frequently meandering weekly column from Gerry Adams, received £850,000 (€1.17m) in 2003-2004 as part of the British, Irish and other EU 'peace funding' thought to have amounted to around €3bn in the two decades since the paramilitary 'ceasefires'.

However, after 30 years of Sinn Fein holding political power, west Belfast has little to show by way of economic advancement.

The constituency consistently ranks in the bottom two or three of the 650 UK parliamentary constituencies on social and economic measurements. More than one out of every five households in Adams' home turf is on disability benefits and entitled to, among other things, a free car under the UK's Disabled Living 'Motability' Allowance.

Sinn Fein has blamed the high unemployment, addiction and teenage pregnancy rates of recent years on 'Tory cuts', sidelining its own culpability as a holder of power in the devolved Stormont government.

West Belfast Sinn Fein MLA Mairtin O Muilleoir is now the North's Finance Minister and chairman of the Belfast Media Group, which includes the weekly Andersonstown News, the Irish Echo in New York and also formerly the defunct all-Ireland 'republican newspaper' Daily Ireland and former Irish language newspaper, La - which also collapsed, despite public funding.

The proposed €90m expansion of Casement Park into a 'world-class' sporting and concert venue has become controversial in the area.

Unfortunately for Sinn Fein and the GAA, the residents of the streets adjoining the stadium are steadfastly, and so far successfully, objecting to a project that would literally leave many of their houses in the dark.

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A safety survey which emerged via a whistleblower two years ago found that the Casement site was too tight for the proposed structure and escape routes would be inadequate in the event of a disaster. Its expansion is opposed by the emergency services. Undeterred, Sinn Fein and the GAA have continued to drive on the project.

Andersonstown is largely a mid-20th-century residential area, much like the Dublin suburbs of Cabra and Drimnagh-Crumlin. It has a stable and tight-knit community and the residents of the Mooreland and Owenvarragh streets adjoining the football park are mainly homeowners with much higher employment rates than surrounding areas.

It was a traditional Sinn Fein heartland but in recent elections the party's vote in west Belfast has dropped with the local People Before Profit party picking up 7,000 of its votes.

The residents' opposition to the Casement Park expansion has been exacerbated by the reported £7m (€8.2m) that has been spent on what they term "expensive hospitality" and public relations campaigns in support of the project.

The Sinn Fein hegemony in west Belfast is not under immediate threat but the decline in its vote is attributable to the party's failure to improve conditions in its longest-held constituency and partly to its promotion of the grandiose stadium, which some have termed the "Provo Dome" or "Gerry Dome", in the face of local opposition.

The money, however, is with SF and the GAA. A reputed £77m (€90m) - again in public funding - is available for the 40,000-seater project.

Some local people see Sinn Fein's promotion of the stadium as misplaced and grandiose in an area that, for the most part, is so severely blighted by poverty and social deprivation.

The spat with the DUP over the Jamie Bryson 'witness-coaching' revelations will probably be settled with the usual horse-trading between the two power-sharing parties.

But loyalists murdered nearly 1,000 Catholics, some of whom were abducted and tortured to death by gangs like the Ulster Volunteer Force's notorious 'Shankill Butchers' over the course of the Troubles. Bryson has declared his view that loyalist paramilitaries were "not terrorists".

The exposure of Sinn Fein apparently conspiring with such a figure as Bryson has left many Catholics shocked and bewildered.

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