Police Arrest 11 Men After Slaying in N. Ireland

London, UK - Police in Northern Ireland have arrested 11 Protestant men after the slaying Sunday evening of a 49-year-old Catholic man, a brutal reminder of how religion-based violence and tension are still an everyday reality in the province.

Kevin McDaid, a plasterer who worked with youths in the community, was beaten to death by a large number of Protestants who drove into a Catholic neighborhood armed with bats and clubs after a soccer match. McDaid had gone into the street to make sure his four children were safe.

A 1998 peace accord known as the Good Friday agreement is often credited with ending the religious violence that had caused more than 3,600 deaths since 1969. But despite enormous political strides, an average of four incidents of sectarian violence or threats are reported to police each day in Northern Ireland. Now, instead of paramilitary groups using rifles and bombs, the incidents often involve youths armed with knives, bats and hate.

"Sectarianism is heating up again," said Peter Shirlow, a professor at Queen's University in Belfast who has written about the conflict.

In March, Catholic radicals who oppose Britain's continued rule of the province killed a policeman and two British soldiers.

The mob Sunday night assembled after the Rangers, a soccer team with a long history of Protestant support, clinched the league championship over archrival Celtic, a team favored by Catholics. Both teams are Scottish, and many of their Northern Irish fans fly or take the boat over to Scotland for every game.

The rivalry between the two teams is a "proxy war" between the two long-feuding groups in Northern Ireland, Shirlow said. He said territorial conflicts continue in working-class neighborhoods where boundaries between Catholics and Protestants are clearly known and often marked by fluttering flags: the Union Jack or the Irish Republic's flag. The wearing of a blue-and-white Rangers scarf or the green-and-white Celtic shirt also distinguishes Catholics from Protestants.

After the championship match that the Rangers won Sunday, a group of fans, many of whom had been drinking, drove in several cars to a Catholic housing estate in Coleraine, a town of 24,000 people 55 miles northwest of Belfast. Witnesses told police they beat up the first people they came across.

McDaid had worked with youths in the community to ease sectarianism and had married a Protestant. His wife was severely beaten and suffered head injuries. Another man, Damien Fleming, was critically injured.

With Catholic youths hanging out on the streets near McDaid's home Tuesday shouting anti-Protestant slogans as police canvassed the area, there was much talk about whether paramilitary groups had ignited the mob.

"There is a great deal of speculation in the town and a great deal of tension," Frankie Taylor, a police detective, told reporters.

Protestant loyalists want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, and Catholic republicans still call for the province to be reunited with the Republic of Ireland. Although political leaders have rejected violence, several analysts said, many of the poorest and least educated residents have not.

Between April 1, 2008, and March 31, 2009, police recorded 1,595 incidents of sectarian violence or threats, a slight rise over the year before. Most are not publicized, and few result in death. The largest category -- nearly 500 reports -- involved "criminal damage," and 287 were assaults.

Paul Bew, an eminent historian and expert on Irish politics, said the "most common form of sectarianism expression is in football," as Europeans call soccer. "You can't stop tens of thousands of people singing sectarian songs" in a stadium, he said, noting that to fans screaming Irish nationalist and pro-Protestant lyrics, "nothing is considered too offensive."

Catholics accounted for 40 percent of Northern Ireland's 1.7 million people in the 2001 census, while 45 percent considered themselves Protestant. Bew said Protestants would probably remain in the majority for at least another generation. But in many areas, traditional working-class Catholic neighborhoods are expanding because of larger Catholic families and exiting Protestants. In the shrinking Protestant enclaves, some feel threatened and "left behind," Bew said.

Coleraine is near the scenic Giant's Causeway, which has attracted growing crowds of international tourists as violence has waned in recent years. On Tuesday, McDaid's widow, Evelyn, came out of her home to talk to reporters. Her face was badly bruised.

"He didn't want any of this tension, any of this fighting going on," she said of her husband on Radio Ulster. She added that he had tried to bring Catholic and Protestant youths together, and that she was "devastated" by the death of her husband of 24 years.

"It was all to do with religion, and I'm not even a Catholic. I am a Protestant, it's a mixed marriage, but they just seem to hate us so much," she said.