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Northern Ireland violence raises questions about paramilitary group

Violence rocked a Belfast neighborhood in Northern Ireland Monday as a pro-British paramilitary group attacked Catholic homes and a church. It was the worst such attack in recent years.

By Correspondent / June 21, 2011

Martin Ferguson looks out from his home following sectarian gang riots in the Nationalist Short Strand area of East Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Tuesday, June 21. Ferguson's home was attacked late Monday by a loyalist protestant gang during rioting between Catholic and Protestant's, and police said up to 500 people were involved in the violence, with shots fired from both sides.

Peter Morrison/AP

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Dublin, Ireland

Homes and a Roman Catholic church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, came under attack last night in the city's worst night of sustained violence in recent years. And as riots erupted in a divided Catholic and Protestant area, many are asking why the Ulster Volunteer Force (UFV), the pro-British paramilitary organization being held responsible for the violence, has refused to go away despite having supposedly destroyed its weapons.

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In a sign of the progress in combating sectarian divides, politicians from across the political spectrum have condemned the attacks, saying paramilitaries have no role in today's Northern Ireland.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland appealed to "anyone with any influence" work with them to stop future outbreaks of sectarian violence. Still, questions are being raised about the possible power struggles in the group that could disrupt the peace in the broader community.

The Short Strand, a small Catholic and republican enclave on the edge of predominantly Protestant and pro-British east Belfast, has long suffered from so-called “interface violence,” going back to the effective beginning of the Northern Ireland conflict in 1969.

Willie Ward, who works at St. Matthew's, the local Catholic church in the area, witnessed the attacks.

“It was purely a sectarian attack on the Catholic community, and people came out to defend their homes,” he says. “Two to three hundred loyalists were attempting to climbs the walls of the church and local homes and attacking them with petrol bombs, stones, bricks and paint bombs."

Mr. Ward says locals – including some Protestant neighbors – are shaken: “The people here are afraid, we've had to move pensioners out of their houses. [The paramilitary members] also attacked a bus going through the area, one that included Protestants."

Chris Lyttle, a local lawmaker with the Alliance Party, which says it has no position on Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom or a United Ireland, said that "the orchestrated violence in East Belfast is utterly destructive, unjustifiable, and unrepresentative of the new Northern Ireland. Those engaging in this rioting have nothing to offer the local community and we need political representatives from all backgrounds to take a firm and united stance against it.”

Sammy Douglas, a lawmaker with the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, the largest group in the powersharing government, says he was "sad and dejected" after witnessing some of the "the worst [rioting] it's been since 1969."

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