The peace and tranquillity, however, was soon to be shattered. Already in 1969 Belfast and Derry, had experienced violence. The Northern Ireland Government opposed and over-reacted to demands for civil rights by various nationalist groupings and community relations began to fracture.
In the months of August and September 1969 large scale rioting and intimidation in west and northwest Belfast led to many families fleeing their homes. The Northern Ireland Community Relations Commission calculated that in those two months alone at least 3,570 families were displaced. Analysis of 1,820 cases which appeared on official lists indicated that 83% of them were Catholic.
During this period Newtownabbey was fortunately free from sectarian intimidation. At a meeting attended by over two hundred concerned residents and clergy, representing all the local churches, a Peace Committee was set up to ensure that the violence did not spread to Rathcoole.
The committee organised vigilante groups to protect all the residents of the estate and enjoyed considerable success until mid 1971 when the Rathcoole Defence Association (RDA) was formed. The RDA spurned all offers by Catholics to participate and moved to erect barricades at entrances to t?he estate. Assisted by teenagers who had banded together in what became known as ‘Tartan gangs’ they stopped and questioned all those entering or leaving the estate. The barricades were eventually removed to be replaced by ‘loyalist’ foot patrols.
Following the violence which resulted from the introduction of internment in August 1971 intimidation of Catholic families in Rathcoole became an everyday occurrence. By March 1972, following the commencement of Direct Rule, the RDA appeared to have complete control of both the Rathcoole and Monkstown estates. Control even extended to the allocation of housing which should have been the function of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.
In June 1972 barricades were erected and hundreds of UDA men patrolled the estate. For three days all entrances were sealed, anyone attempting to enter the area was stopped and checked and only those who met with approval were allowed to proceed. Intimidation of Catholic families became intense and when the police stated that they did not have the resources to cope the army was moved into factory premises on Church Road. Catholic families however were to claim that they noticed little appreciable increase in protection.
Within the schools principals and teachers attempted to maintain an air of normality. This was particularly difficult as distressed parents frequently arrived in the course of the school day seeking their children; they were having to flee their homes and often had little idea where they were going. Houses were under attack and families struggled to remove their possessions as lorries, bedecked with flags, and stacked with furniture, waited nearby to move another family in. Furniture was frequently stored in Stella Maris as a short term measure while families stayed with relatives and sought alternative accommodation.
At night parents listened to radios, tuned to the police frequency, in an attempt to follow the pattern of intimidation, fearful that their house might be the next for attack. This often continued into the early hours of the morning and children would arrive in school exhausted from lack of sleep and worried about what might be happening at home.
Protestant neighbours often sought to apologise to Catholic friends for their inability to protect them. The situation however was being manipulated by certain very sinister forces and there was little the ordinary people could do.
Between June 1971 and June 1974 Stella Maris Primary enrolment dropped from 996 to 228 – a colossal decrease which augured badly for the future of the secondary schools.
The enrolment in the Secondary Schools had peaked in September 1970 with a combined total of approximately 850 pupils. St. Nicholas’ Secondary School opened in Carrickfergus in 1969 and Stella Maris suffered a further blow with the loss of the Greenisland and Carrickfergus children.
Intimidation continued throughout the 1970s and in September 1980 pupil numbers in the boys’ school were down to 230. This had been exacerbated by the opening of a new secondary school, run by the Irish Christian Brothers, on the Hightown Road, in Glengormley. Following the opening the intake of Stella Maris Boys’ Secondary fell by approximately one third.