Politicians from across the divide have united in condemnation after four Catholic families were forced to flee their homes in Belfast in the wake of sectarian threats.
Cantrell Close, off the Ravenhill Road in the south of the city, was supposed to be a flagship cross-community development as part of Stormont Together Building United Communities programme.
But four families in the social housing development have now reported themselves homeless to the Housing Executive, claiming they have been the victim of sectarian intimidation.
There has been a chorus of condemnation from nationalists and unionists alike.
The DUP branded the situation “absolutely disgraceful” and said those responsible must face the courts.
Sinn Fein has claimed the threats came from the UVF.
But at a media briefing in Belfast yesterday, police declined to comment on who they believed may have been responsible.
One of the residents forced to flee his home believes he was targeted purely because of his religion.
Speaking anonymously on BBC’s Talkback Show yesterday, he told how he and his family – including his pregnant wife – have had to seek refuge at a friend’s house.
“We’re not going to be able to go back to get clothes or anything and we went to the Housing Executive to try and get us rehoused,” he added.
PSNI Chief Superintendent Chris Noble would not speculate on who may have been behind the threats.
However, he said the paramilitary task force was involved in the investigation.
“There’s an active investigation, we’re working with the paramilitary task force to understand who is behind it,” he added.
In the summer the development was hit with another controversy when loyalist paramilitary flags were erected on lamp posts.
hile police would not be drawn on who they believed was responsible for the intimidation, Sinn Fein’s Mairtin O Muilleoir pointed the finger at the east Belfast UVF.
He said the police had made the families aware of the paramilitary threats.
“This blatant sectarianism has no place in our society and should be condemned outright,” the South Belfast MLA said.
“This is meant to be a shared neighbourhood and it is completely unacceptable that people are being intimidated by the UVF in this day and age.”
Mr O Muilleoir said some of the residents had raised concerns with him earlier this year after UVF and other flags were erected around the development.
“They felt that this would heighten tensions in the area and Catholics in the area were fearful before the summer,” he added.
“People in the area are also very worried that the UVF were able to go about their activity in this manner.”
The former finance minister called on unionists to “speak out and show leadership”.
Emma Little Pengelly, DUP MP for South Belfast, and party MLA Christopher Stalford issued a joint statement condemning the threats.
“It is absolutely disgraceful that anyone should be threatened from their home,” they said.
“This area has traditionally been welcoming to all and those responsible do not represent the area. It must be condemned by everyone.
“Those behind this intimidation must be identified and face the courts. Anyone with information should contact the police and ensure those responsible face the full weight of the law.”
SDLP MLA Claire Hanna unreservedly condemned the threats, which she described as a “complete breach of the spirit and ethos” envisaged by the cross-community project.
“Shared housing is vital for progress in this society and it must be protected. We cannot live in a society where families are being threatened out of their homes,” she added.
Branding those behind the intimidation “paramilitary thugs”, Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw said: “These families moved into a mixed housing area with the expectation of a quiet and peaceful life.
“It is disgraceful loyalist paramilitaries have attempted to stamp their authority by threatening them if they do not leave.”
The intimidation came just days after police made the first report on a new joint task force to tackle crime by paramilitary groups.
Yesterday, PSNI Chief Supt Chris Noble said whoever was behind the threats had “no regard whatsoever for what the people of east Belfast want”.
He added: “My key appeal and what we need to progress this investigation is information. Whether it comes through the 101 hotline to detectives in Musgrave Street, or the Crimestoppers number 0800 555 111.
“The key bits of information which will allow us to break the case and bring people to justice, hopefully are already out there and are in the minds of people who are listening to me talking now.”
A Housing Executive spokesman said: “A number of families in the south Belfast area have presented to us as homeless claiming sectarian intimidation.”