A shocking sectarian siege

 

Northern Ireland: On June 19th, 2001, a young loyalist putting up flags on the Ardoyne Road in north Belfast claimed to have been attacked by nationalist parents coming from the nearby Holy Cross Girls' School.

No one has ever succeeded in getting to the bottom of the incident but it was to spark off one of the most disgraceful episodes in the 30-year history of community conflict in Northern Ireland - the 12-week blockade of the school by loyalist protesters.

In that protest, children as young as five years old and their parents were subjected to indignities and abuse that plumbed new depths of hatred and were to shock millions of television viewers across the world. The children and their parents were spat at, taunted, hit with bottles, stones, sticks and bags of urine, and, on one dreadful occasion, a blast-bomb was thrown. Their pastors, who courageously accompanied them each day on their journey to school, were confronted with placards accusing them of sexual crimes and were cursed and vilified. The parents were physically attacked and beaten. The protest revealed, for all to see, the vicious sectarian cancer that could on occasion be at the heart of loyalism.

For the parents, the issue was clear-cut from the outset. Their children had a right to education and they had taken this route to school for more than 30 years. To give in to the protest and take the longer alternative route through another school and across a football pitch to the back door was to accept that they were second-class citizens in their own land. Worse, it was to tell their children that this was so.

But what about the protesters? How could apparently rational adults behave like this towards innocent children? The loyalist residents of Glenbryn, where the school is situated, did have grievances: they feared the decline of their own district in the face of the expansion of the adjoining Ardoyne area and they were frightened by the growing confidence and assertiveness of their Catholic neighbours. There also seems little doubt that they suffered from stone-throwing attacks by nationalist youths across the peace line between the two communities, although Catholic residents on the Ardoyne side also experienced attacks from loyalists.

The initial protest seems to have been spontaneous and there is some evidence that the Glenbryn residents initially believed the police would prevent the parents bringing their children to school along the direct route. In some vague way they believed talks would result and their demands for a new wall to separate the communities would be conceded.

But the police took the decision that the children must be allowed to get to school and so the stand-off deteriorated into a test of wills between the parents and the protesters that was to last for three months.

What the protest also revealed was the absence of sophisticated political leadership on the loyalist side, which must bode ill for the future. Some of the more perceptive among the protesters saw from the beginning that this was a battle they could not win. To pit loyalist thugs against small children was unlikely to gather them much support. Yet the few moderate voices went unheeded. Like lemmings going over a cliff, the protesters persisted with the madness. There have been suggestions (denied by protest leaders) that the muscle was provided by Johnny Adair's UDA company from the lower Shankill Road, bussed in specially for that purpose.

Anne Cadwallader has written an outstanding book that deserves a wide circulation. The story she has to tell reveals uncomfortable truths about the gulf which separates the two communities in Belfast and the massive work that has to be done if Northern Ireland is ever to resemble a normal society.

For her research she has interviewed parents and children, teachers and clergy, republicans and loyalists, police and politicians. She has attempted to give a balanced account of the events, although there are occasions when balance is impossible because the behaviour is so vile that there can be no mitigation - and the siege of Holy Cross School is one such case.

Holy Cross: The Untold Story By Anne Cadwallader, The Brehon Press, 320pp. £10.99

Eugene McEldowney is a writer and critic and a former pupil at Holy Cross Boys' School, Ardoyne