Children walk to school in cross fire of adults’ hatred in Belfast, as riot police step in
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) – Terrified Roman Catholic schoolgirls clung to their parents Monday as riot police held back crowds of angry Protestants trying to keep them from walking to school through their neighborhood on the first day of classes.
The confrontation provoked clashes throughout the day, with violence building after dark as rival mobs of Protestant and Catholic men attacked police and some of each community’s homes.
The day’s tensions began in Ardoyne, a mostly Catholic district, where police wielding clubs, shields and attack dogs drove back Protestants who were trying to block a road outside a Catholic elementary school. A Catholic mother was hit in the face with a bottle and hospitalized.
Most of the pupils – girls as young as 4 wearing brand-new red uniforms – were sent home early, in tears, from Holy Cross Primary School. A fleet of Catholic-run black taxis ferried them past lines of police with helmets and shields, while many of the Protestants shouted curses and insults.
”This looks like Alabama in the ’60s,” said Brendan Mailey, leader of a Catholic parents group that refused to use a rear entrance and insisted on using the front door of the school, which lies in the small Protestant section of Ardoyne.
”It’s beyond my worst nightmare,” said the Rev. Aidan Troy, a Catholic priest who was appointed governor of the school during the summer vacation break. ”The abuse I heard was unbelievable. It was one of the most savage experiences of my life.”
At a school meeting Monday night, Troy urged about 150 Catholic parents to use the rear entrance to the school in coming days. The most hard-line parents rejected that option during previous confrontations in June, and before the meeting said they didn’t want to buckle to Protestant threats. Protestants have not challenged Catholics using the rear entrance.
Local Protestants said that they were responding to Catholic attacks on their neighborhood, which is separated from the Catholic part of the district by high metal fences. Houses on both sides have been attacked in recent months with stones, gasoline and pipe bombs and even bursts of gunfire, prompting many residents to abandon their homes indefinitely.
That pattern resumed Monday night in Ardoyne and several other areas of north Belfast. Police said two bursts of gunfire were directed at their positions between rival Protestant and Catholic groups in Ardoyne, though they weren’t sure which side was firing. Nobody was reported hit.
Youths from both camps hurled bricks, bottles and occasional gasoline bombs and crude grenades at the officers, who wore body armor, helmets and flame-retardent suits. At least three officers were reported injured. The rioters also hijacked and burned at least two cars.
Elsewhere, as part of street clashes in three other parts of north Belfast targeting vulnerable homes, a pipebomb was hurled into the back yard of a Catholic home. Nobody was reported injured.
Earlier, Ardoyne’s Protestants said their attempted school blockade was aimed at the students’ parents, some of whom they accused of being Irish Republican Army members orchestrating violence.
”It’s the parents we have the problem with, not the children. When they stop attacking this community, we’ll think about letting them back up the Ardoyne Road,” said Jim Potts, leader of the protest group that blocked the road outside the school for two weeks in June.
Potts – identified by police as a member of the outlawed Ulster Defense Association, a Protestant group that attacked several Catholic homes in Ardoyne this summer – said the British government should build a new elementary school for the Catholics in their own area.
”Why was this school ever allowed to be built here in the first place?” he said. He suggested Protestant children be allowed to use it instead.
Another outlawed Protestant group, the Red Hand Defenders, issued a vague threat to attack Catholic parents and police officers guarding the area. Police consider the group a cover name used by Ulster Defense Association members, who are supposed to be observing a cease-fire in support of Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord. UDA flags fly from many posts and houses in the Protestant section of Ardoyne.
Northern Ireland’s police commander, Ronnie Flanagan, vowed to protect Catholic parents and children regardless of what entrance they used.
”There is no justification, no basis whatever for attempting to block the path of children going to school,” he said, appealing for both sides to negotiate a compromise. ”Society must solve these problems, but not in some way that children are used as a bargaining chip.”
Some of the Catholic children appeared bewildered by their parents’ determination. When one Catholic woman screamed an insult at a Protestant protester about five yards away, using her first name, her daughter pulled her hand and asked her stop.
”Children should not be made to suffer because of the sectarian stupidity of adults,” said Marcella Delaney, a local activist from the Workers Party, a small left-wing group that has struggled in vain to build support among Belfast’s poorest Protestants and Catholics.
Mailey, whose 8-year-old daughter was among those sent home early Monday, said he was not sure whether he would use the back entrance Tuesday or face confrontation again in the front.
”We have bent over backwards to accommodate those people,” he said of the Protestants in Ardoyne, who live on four short streets in a corner of the district. Homes on both sides of the line have their windows covered with steel grills to protect against rocks and bricks.
”I don’t care what excuses they’re giving for this intimidation,” Mailey said. ”They shouldn’t be allowed to threaten children aged 4 to 11, it’s as simple as that.”
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