Back in the old days, a curfew bell used to ring through Coleraine nightly at 9pm. The bell tolled for the town's Catholics, instructing them to return across the river Bann to their ghetto in Killowen. By the time the practice ended in 1954, the tolling had been relegated from instruction to tradition, but still held huge symbolic significance. The town council's decision to discontinue the practice was informed by budgetary considerations, rather than any attempt at conciliation.
Last Sunday, a few tricolours were raised above Somerset Drive in The Heights area of Killowen. Nearby, at home, Kevin McDaid was living through his last day, one that would end with a vicious beating.
The Heights area is now described as mixed, but is probably as nationalist an area as you will get in a Protestant town. The flags were ostensibly raised for a sporting occasion. Celtic and Rangers were playing on the final day of the Scottish Premier League. Both had a chance of winning the title, depending on results. As it was to transpire, Rangers took the title for the first time in four years. These things matter greatly in the working class estates of Northern Ireland.
Flying flags is second nature in the north. Travel through Armagh and observe the pockets of minority Protestant villages or estates where the Union Jack is prominent, flown with pride and defiance.
Such displays by the local minority tradition are not permitted in Coleraine. The Taigs are expected to keep their heads down, to know their place. The town is a stronghold of the UDA. Torrens Knight is a local, celebrated killer. He was convicted of murdering 12 Catholics in two incidences – one of which was the Greysteel massacre – in 1993. When he was released under the Good Friday agreement, Knight was carried shoulder high through one pub in the town centre.
Coleraine sits near the mouth of the Bann in Co Derry. It is described as a "bustling town", and includes in its precincts a campus for the University of Ulster. Roughly 80% of the population is Protestant.
On Sunday, the tricolour went up in The Heights, but it was raised for more than just a sporting occasion. Confidence has infected the Catholic minority in the north over the last few years. Many are buying into the notion of parity of esteem. The bad old days of oppression, followed by organised murder on all sides, is over. Catholics in areas like Coleraine are eager to assert their identity. Doing so is supposed to be an entitlement under the new dispensation.
Word spread fast that the tricolour went up. DUP MLA Adrian McQuillan said afterwards that he was in contact with the police on Sunday afternoon to inform them that flags had been erected. "I just asked the police to keep an eye on the situation and make them aware of it," he said.
At some point, word came through to Scott's bar in New Market Street in the town, a favoured watering hole of loyalists. Over 100 patrons were in the bar, watching the football and drinking. Between the drink, the football and the flags, tensions began to rise. The police were eager to quell any potential for trouble. At least one officer entered the bar, and engaged in some form of negotiation with individuals. It is understood that an agreement was hatched. Nobody would go up to The Heights looking for trouble, and the flags would come down the following day. It is unclear when exactly the exchanges took place.
Up at The Heights, they were expecting trouble. A makeshift barricade consisting of a horsebox was erected at the entrance to Somerset Drive. Over in Scotland, Rangers won the day. Ordinarily, it might be expected that victory would lead to celebrations. In Scott's bar, celebrating were interpreted by some as inflicting viciousness on the Taigs.
The cars drove into a lane off Somerset Drive sometime after 9pm. Up to 40 men got out, wielding pick axe handles and baseball bats. Some of them began to take down the tricolours. At home, around the corner, 49-year-old Kevin McDaid heard the commotion. McDaid was a plasterer by trade, but latterly, he put most of his energy into community work. The immediate area had had its share of social problems and there have been tensions between the two traditions. The father of four was to the fore in attempting to build up the community. His wife Evelyn is Protestant.
McDaid knew two of his sons were around outside. He went out and was immediately set upon by the mob. Another local man Damien Fleming received a similar trashing. Evelyn McDaid attempted to intervene and was beaten black and blue. A pregnant woman from the area appealed to the attackers to stop. She also was beaten.
McDaid's son Ryan picked his father up as the mob retreated. They stumbled around the corner to the back door of the family home. McDaid collapsed and died soon after. The official cause of death was a heart attack.
Ryan McDaid spoke publicly on Monday about the killing of his father. At 11.40pm on Tuesday, a police officer visited the family home and handed him a standard blue sheet, which contains the official notification of a death threat. Even in bereavement, Taigs are expected to know their place in Coleraine.
Some of the reaction spoke volumes. The DUP man McQuillan focused on the flags. "Tit-for-tat all the time. What reason can you see for there being tricolours up yesterday afternoon, a Sunday afternoon? None other than to get a reaction from the loyalist community, and they certainly got a reaction this time, which is very sad."
He later apologised for the remarks, but there was no escaping the subtext. Catholics in the town should know their place, and not be aggravating the thuggish element of loyalism.
The Police Ombudsman is investigating the attack and all that led up to it. The PSNI has confirmed that there were officers in the area, as tensions were high. How quick they responded will be a subject of investigation, as will the negotiations with loyalists who were consuming drink. There will also be a focus on how much time elapsed between the negotiations and the attack.
On Thursday, nine men ranging in ages from 18 to 50 were charged in relation to the killing. Six were charged with murder, three others with assault and affray.
"It's my firm belief that there was a UDA involvement," Sinn Féin councilor Billy Leonard told the Sunday Tribune. "And the police should never have entered into negotiations with loyalists who had been drinking. We knew this was coming. We knew that somebody was going to die and we warned the police. We knew the viciousness of these people."
Last August, a group of up to 100 entered the same area and attacked local people who were preparing an internment bonfire. Leonard says tension has been building since then.
According to PSNI figures, there has been a major rise in sectarian crime in the town at a time when incidents across the north have been on the decline. While overall figures were down 3% in 2008, the number of sectarian incidents including wounding, injury and intimidation are up 95%. There have also been a number of pipe bomb attacks.
The SPLP's John Dallat puts much of the increase in attacks down to the small nationalist community attempting to assert itself, as is its right.
"Loyalists will not accept any culture in Coleraine except their own," he says. "Catholics are expected to know their place."
It has always been thus. Dallat remembers one occasion two decades ago when he was issuing campaign leaflets outside a church in the town. The parish priest, a Canon Murphy, approached him and cautioned him about leaving leaflets in a prominent position.
"He told me, 'the curfew bell may not ring loudly in Coleraine anymore, but it still rings'".
Through the week, wellwishers left flowers and messages and Celtic jerseys on the railings at the back of Kevin McDaid's house, where he fell and died. Attached to one bouquet was a simple message. "RIP Kevin. From someone who never knew you. All I ask is why."