Holy Cross School protests: Woman subjected to missiles as little girl still suffers flashbacks

Alice-Lee Bunting (24) among girls who ran loyalist gauntlet on way to school in 2001

Riot police ahead of people making their way to school on the fourth day of the Ardoyne road dispute, in which children attending the Holy Cross primary school had to make their way past loyalists living in the area. File photograph: Jason South

Riot police ahead of people making their way to school on the fourth day of the Ardoyne road dispute, in which children attending the Holy Cross primary school had to make their way past loyalists living in the area. File photograph: Jason South

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A north Belfast woman who was subjected to abuse and missiles as she walked to the Holy Cross primary school in Ardoyne 20 years ago says she still suffers flashbacks and nightmares.

Alice-Lee Bunting (24) was among scores of girls who ran a loyalist gauntlet on their way to the school in 2001.

Images of Ms Bunting and her school mates crying and clinging to their parents in terror made headlines across the world at the time.

The Catholic school became a sectarian flashpoint when loyalists began picketing children and their parents walking to the girls’ school after what they claimed was harassment from nationalists in the area.

The picketing in an area regarded by loyalists as Protestant started in 2001 during soaring sectarian tensions in the sharply divided area.

It resumed in September after the school summer holiday, as Ms Bunting started P1 (the first year of primary school), and continued until January 2002.

The chairman of the Holy Cross School board of governors, Fr Aidan Troy, rose to wider prominence North and South because of his efforts to protect the Catholic schoolchildren from being verbally abused on the street as they walked to the school.

Ms Bunting said she had no idea why she was being attacked, and neither did her mother.

Her eldest son Darraigh is due to start school in September, 20 years after her first day at school. She is relieved he will not have to face what she did.

“It feels like yesterday, it was just horrendous for little girls going to school,” she said.

‘I couldn’t stop crying’

“It was my first day in P1, I was nervous anyway for my first day at school, but walking to school and grown-ups shouting at us, throwing stuff at us, I didn’t know what was going on. It felt like a bad dream, getting up every day to face that, I just didn’t want to go to school, I couldn’t stop crying.

“I was only five at the time, every night I was getting flashbacks.

“Darraigh is coming up to the age I was when I started at Holy Cross, I’m just glad it is not something that he has to go through.”

Missiles thrown at the girls and their parents as they walked up Ardoyne Road to the school building included balloons filled with urine and pipe bombs.

The girls and their parents had to be escorted by police for their protection.

Even inside the school, Ms Bunting said they felt scared that the windows might be smashed or the building attacked.

Alice-Lee Bunting with sons Darraigh Bunting (4) and Keaghan Tommy Bunting (8 months). Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Alice-Lee Bunting with sons Darraigh Bunting (4) and Keaghan Tommy Bunting (8 months). Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

“When we got into school everyone was shocked and crying. I remember they gave us teddy bears in school, wee girl dolls, I still have mine, as a comfort for everyone.

“We were just innocent wee girls coming to school, we hadn’t done anything wrong. It was older people, some even pensioners, who were terrorising us. They didn’t have to take it out on us going to school.

“It will stay with me for life, it’s not something that can be forgotten.”

Alice-Lee Bunting, who attended Holy Cross Girls’ School Belfast 20 years ago during the Holy Cross dispute in Ardoyne, north Belfast, with her sons Darraigh Bunting (4) and Keaghan Tommy Bunting (8 months). Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Alice-Lee Bunting, who attended Holy Cross Girls’ School Belfast 20 years ago during the Holy Cross dispute in Ardoyne, north Belfast, with her sons Darraigh Bunting (4) and Keaghan Tommy Bunting (8 months). Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

She added: “There are still no answers as to why we were terrorised like that going to school, we were only little girls.” – PA