The Housing Executive claims the problem of abandoned homes has 'nothing to do with paramilitaries', but Coleraine's dwindling Catholic communities tell a different story. The houses are empty, street after street of them, windows and doors boarded up, black and silent. The small front gardens have nothing in them but rough grass, with the occasional glint of a discarded beer can. The red, white and blue paint on the kerbstones is fading. There's broken glass on the roads, crude messages on the gables.

Someone has painted out the names, but the accusations remain: 'Tout'; 'Motorbike thief''; 'Mammy's boy'.
The wind from the Atlantic blasts through this deserted place that was once the centre of Ballysally, on the outskirts of Coleraine, Co Derry. The abandoned houses of Washington Drive and Jefferson Park surround a green, at the top of which lies the clue to the desolation. It is a large mural displaying a coat of arms emblazoned: 'Londonderry and North Antrim Brigade, UDA' - the source of the poison.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) is to demolish 160 houses here, "as part of overall regeneration plans developed in consultation with local communities". Approximately £8m is to be spent.

The issue, according to the NIHE, is "oversupply".

The issue, according to local SDLP MLA John Dallat, is loyalist paramilitarism.

"These houses are being knocked down because no-one wants to live there," he said. "Elsewhere in Coleraine, there are people on waiting lists." The housing shortage is particularly experienced by Coleraine's Catholic minority.

It is exacerbated by the inflated price of land in the area, which is near the beautiful north coast. Resorts such as Portrush, Portstewart and Castlerock are filling up with second homes and investment properties. In winter, they are becoming ghost towns. Social housing isn't a priority for developers.

According to Dallat, the NIHE has admitted that, in Ballysally, it is attempting to separate warring factions of the UDA and the UVF. The term "oversupply" masks the fact that Catholics don't want to live in the Estate because it isn't safe. Houses fall empty because families are intimidated out.

After last year's GAA final, one Catholic family hung a Tyrone flag out a bedroom window. The flag was torn down, wrapped around a brick and flung through the living room window. Two nights later, shots were fired into the house. The family left.

A spokeswoman for the NIHE said the demolition in Ballysally was "nothing to do with paramilitaries".

The entrance to the neighbouring estate, Harper's Hill, is also marked by UDA murals and a large memorial to a teenage loyalist who blew himself up while handling pipe bombs two years ago: 'Lest we forget'. A week ago, in what appears to have been a loyalist dispute, a gun was put to a factory worker's head.

Earlier this month, Dallat accused unionist councillors of "remarkable cowardice" after they refused to support an SDLP motion proposing that Coleraine council should uphold the right of citizens to "reside in a neutral environment, free from all the trappings of paramilitary groups". Independent Unionist Pauline Armitage said:
"What is seen as provocative by one side of the community might be seen as cultural to the other side". UUP councillor David McClarty said there was "no point forcing people to take down flags because they will reappear in larger numbers".

The derelict zone of the Estate is beside the local primary school, a cheerful and vibrant place, bright with children's paintings. There are photos showing the children meeting Mary Robinson when she was president. The school is involved in community relations initiatives with Catholic schools and schools in the South.

"There is paramilitarism in every estate bar none," said Headmaster, Desmond Hasson. "This is an area with 60% unemployment, large numbers of single-parent families, and all the social problems that go with deprivation, including alcohol abuse and vandalism. But most of the negative publicity Ballysally has got is unwarranted.

"The school is an oasis of tranquillity. We teach a policy which is liberal - everyone has to be respected. That is why we have Roman Catholic pupils. At school, we have no issues in relation to paramilitarism. They leave us alone." However, he said several Catholic families have been lost to the school because they had to move out after intimidation. He described this as "appalling".

At the shop, young mothers Anne and Mary said Ballysally was a good place to live.

They praised the community centre with its courses and clubs and support groups.

They denied there was sectarianism or paramilitarism.

"That is a total lie," said Anne. "I have more Catholic neighbours than Protestants."

"There's just wee bits of UDA graffiti here and there, and then, after band parades, sometimes there's people with drink in them takes the hump." Mary agreed. "You say you're from Ballysally and you get a name as scum," she said. "But that's just a reputation the area has got because of things that were put in the news. What's wrong here is the Housing Executive uses it as a dumping ground."

"There is riff-raff put in here that was put out of other places. Trouble only comes to you if you've done something to deserve it."