Back to school, past mean streets

Riot police had to protect Catholic children in Belfast yesterday, amid loyalist protests.

Eight-year-old Gemma McCabe will remember her first day back at school yesterday for the rest of her life. It wasn't the excitement at seeing her classmates again, but the gantlet of hate she had to endure before reaching the school gates.

Along with the rest of the children at her Catholic school in Belfast, Gemma and her parents were subjected to a sustained tirade of Protestant sectarian verbal abuse and physical attack from rocks, bottles and firecrackers.

The hatred directed against schoolchildren and their parents - unique even in Northern Ireland's bloody past - shows that despite the passing of seven years since the IRA and loyalist paramilitary ceasefires, the balm of reconciliation has yet to soothe some of the hearts of iron forged through three decades of conflict.

For 32 years, the schoolgirls of Ardoyne have made their way to class along the same route. There have been occasional ugly incidents, but nothing like the naked sectarian violence of yesterday, which sent one woman to the hospital and injured at least three other adults.

With only three weeks until the British government faces another deadline in the peace process, the incident is a bitter reminder of the gap that must be bridged to avert deeper crisis.

Paul Arthur, professor of politics at the University of Ulster, says the school incident was "appalling but not necessarily surprising in a peace process where people have not yet learned how to trust each other. It could be described as one of the 'rituals of small differences," he says. "People who are not yet reconciled to each other will hang onto confrontations that highlight the grievances they have nursed over three decades."

Many Protestant churchmen and voters are appalled at the incident and privately acknowledge it as a public relations fiasco that portrays their community as bigoted and prejudiced.

The Protestant protesters, meanwhile, have accused the police of using "heavy-handed" tactics at what was a peaceful demonstration until they were attacked with police dogs and batons. They are demanding that the British government close the school and build a new one inside the Catholic area.

Holy Cross Girls' Primary School was built in the Protestant area of Glenbryn 32 years ago, before violence hit its stride. About 300 yards separate the Catholic area of Ardoyne from the school. For Gemma yesterday, home and school seemed worlds apart.

Early yesterday morning, Gemma's home in Ardoyne was happily chaotic. Gemma's father, Gerard, a professional musician with an Irish folk band, was rushing about getting dressed as his five children and wife prepared for the new day. Once the new red-and-white ribbons were tied at the end of Gemma's braids, Sharon, a cook at Holy Cross Monastery, explained that she had managed to prevent Gemma from becoming frightened, so far, about going back to school. But with a British Army helicopter hovering overhead and the area swamped with troops and policemen, normality became impossible.

At 8.30 a.m, clutching Gemma's hand, Sharon and Gerard began walking up the hill toward the school. For about half of the route, they were protected by a 10-foot-high barricade, erected by police and the British Army.

But the barricade could not prevent Gemma from hearing the abuse of the hundreds of loyalists gathered to protest, or from the projectiles thrown for the remaining 100 yards once the barricade came to an end.

Loyalists spat on the children and their parents and pelted them with obscenities and jeers such as, "Get back to your ratholes." Between lines of police in full riot gear, the protesters hurled rocks, bottles, and fireworks at the weeping mothers and sobbing girls, some as young as 5 years old.

The conflict began in June, when Protestants living close to Ardoyne complained about an increase in the number and severity of vandal attacks on their homes. The area's member of Parliament, Nigel Dodds of the Democratic Unionist Party, which opposes the Good Friday peace agreement, said Catholics had "provoked" the violence.

Despite attempts to generate dialogue over the summer, loyalists decided to continue their protests when the term began yesterday.

Father Aidan Troy, the chairman of the school governors, is recommending that children and parents now take a three-quarter-mile detour to school. Many parents, however, say this is tantamount to the state admitting it is incapable of defending the equal rights of Catholic schoolchildren. The deeper question is whether the peace process can guarantee Catholics equality, and freedom from sectarian harassment, in a state where they are a minority.

The peace process stalled three weeks ago, after the IRA declined to give specifics on its offer to disarm. Unless a Sept. 23 deadline for restarting the process is met, the British government will have to decide whether to put the entire peace process under a lengthy review or call new, and inevitably divisive, elections.

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