Editorial: Sectarian assault on 12-year-old Derry boy reprehensible

Our community has taken many important and positive steps forward since the end of the Troubles but progress in tackling sectarianism remains frustratingly slow.

Examples of sectarian mindsets spilling over into violence remain, sadly, all too familiar in 2023. These are reprehensible enough when they involve adults but are somehow even more shocking when children are perpetrators or victims.

In Derry this week a 12-year-old boy with autism was set upon by three teenage boys and a teenage girl in an attack police are treating as a sectarian hate crime.

Alexander Gillon was waiting outside a friend's house in the Protestant Fountain estate when he was assaulted on the city's walls. In what was by any measure a traumatic and terrifying experience, he was left with concussion and a black eye, injuries which required hospital treatment. Alexander's mother Samantha spoke of how his head had been banged on the walls and his leg kicked.

It is understood that young Alexander's assailants asked him what football team he supported before launching their attack. Thankfully, a woman who was in the area and witnessed the attack intervened before Alexander was further injured, with his attackers running away.

The idea that a boy waiting for his friend could be beaten up by others scarcely older because they regarded him as coming from the 'wrong' area and being of a different religion is profoundly dispiriting.

Adding a further tragic layer to the family's experience is the fact that Alexander is autistic. Ms Gillon explained that, among other things, this means her son doesn't feel pain and at the time did not fully realise what had happened to him; indeed, after the attack he returned to playing cricket.

However, since then the shock of the assault has deeply affected him. "He's not actually dealing with it too well," explained Ms Gillon. "He's more scared to go out of the house in case it happens again.

"He's not been sleeping because he thinks that they're going to come back and attack him."

This gives some idea of the mental anguish that can last after physical wounds have started to heal.

The attack has been widely condemned but as a society it is clear that we need to do more. As Senator George Mitchell, in a speech during his visit to Belfast in April to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, urged, we need to work harder to "decommission mindsets".