How many families fled the Stella Maris catchment area? The exact number probably will never be known. The Community Relations Commission (CRC) attempted to quantify the extent of population movement before it was disbanded in 1974 but had great difficulty in doing so. Official figures did exist but the Commission believed they were gross under estimates.
Families fleeing their homes were required to obtain a statement from the local police stating that they had been intimidated out before they could be placed on the emergency housing list. In many instances the police, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, refused to state that this was the case.
The CRC produced several interim reports on the subject of intimidation and population movement. One entitled ‘Flight’ published in August 1971 met with a muted response but another headed ‘Intimidation in Housing’ issued in February 1974 created quite a stir; for some time it had been rumoured that the Commission was coming under pressure from government to delete part of this report. It was further claimed that some Commission staff were unhappy at the lack of support from the commission and its director.
The deleted material was leaked and the SDLP held a press conference on the day following the publication of the report. The party leader, Mr. Gerry Fitt, called on the then Chief Constable, Mr. Jamie Flanagan, to initiate an investigation into police activities at Whiteabbey RUC station. He claimed that Catholic families under intimidation in the Newtownabbey area were receiving practically no protection from the local police and went on to say that the army had taken little action to stop intimidation in the Rathcoole estate because ‘it was the general policy not to aggravate the majority’.
One of the deleted paragraphs stated that: ‘Definite sympathies with the UDA have come to light in our investigations. The Loyalist outlook of certain members of the RUC at Whiteabbey and York Road [stations] colours their perception, judgement and response in dealing with intimidation and all its attendant problems’. Another statement claimed that ‘the role of the army was not determined by the need to protect the citizens under the Queen’s Writ’.
Fitt said that when he and other SDLP members had gone to Whiteabbey station to complain they were given little satisfaction. He stressed that he was not attacking the RUC as a force ‘as he always found members at other stations very helpful’. He found the omission of these paragraphs from the Community Relations Report to have ‘sinister connotations\ and added ‘that police at Whiteabbey were still reluctant to agree that families were being intimidated’.
He went on to claim that a woman had approached him to say that she: \Rang the [Whiteabbey] station some twenty minutes before the shooting of a young man outside the factory two weeks ago and told them that there was a car acting suspiciously and there were men wearing balaclava helmets’. He went on to say that the station was only a short distance from her house yet the police did not arrive until after the incident. This was obviously a reference to an attack by loyalist paramilitaries on five young people from the Bawnmore estate travelling by car to work in the Abbey Meats factory. Of those attacked one died at the scene, a second died one week later and two others were seriously wounded.
A survey conducted by the parish priests of Greencastle, Whiteabbey, Whitehouse and Green Island parishes in the late 1970s found that approximately one thousand four hundred families had fled the area.
For further information on movement of population and community relations see:
Community Relations Papers (CREL)
Public Records of Northern Ireland (PRONI)
SDLP Press Conference – Reported in ‘The Irish Times’ (23 February 1974) - CREL/6/5