Demographic shift underlies Belfast strife

Parliament debated a bill yesterday to ensure student safety, as a week-old protest softened.

As the second week of classes began yesterday, Protestant demonstrators showed restraint in their continued protest at a Catholic school. The protesters stood in silence as the frightened children, some as young as 5, filed into Holy Cross Girls' Primary, holding their parents' hands.

"From now on, this protest will be controlled and dignified," said Stuart McCartney, a spokesman for the protesters. Last week, Protestants threw rocks and bottles, and a bomb severely injured two policemen.

Clergymen from both sides have urged talks between Catholics and Protestants in this troubled area of North Belfast, and initial discussions were tentatively set to begin tonight.

At the heart of the antagonism are the rival demands of two communities living side by side. They share similar experiences of violence, bereavement, and social and economic deprivation. But walls between them continue to grow higher, as efforts to reach a lasting peace in Northern Ireland stumble toward a crisis over the decommissioning of Irish Republican Army weapons.

Kate Riley, one of the residents of the Protestant neighborhood of Glenbryn who has taken part in the attempted school blockade, voices her community's deep sense of being besieged by its Catholic neighbors.

"It's got nothing to do with the school," she says. "They want our houses."

Holy Cross school was built in Glenbryn 32 years ago, before violence hit its stride. Its students come from the Catholic neighborhood of Ardoyne, 300 yards away, just across the 15-foot concrete-and-metal so-called peace line separating the two communities. Ardoyne is bursting at the seams and full of children, in stark contrast to the pensioners who live in the emptying streets on the Protestant side.

Upwardly-mobile Protestants are moving out of economically depressed North Belfast in droves to new housing estates in satellite towns around the city. They move to get away from loyalist paramilitary domination and to bring up their children away from the drugs, graffiti and ever-present sectarian threat of the area.

Those left behind, for economic reasons or because they refuse to leave their home territory, feel their community is under threat from the burgeoning numbers of Catholic families across the peaceline.

Protestants believe that what used to be "their" quarter of Belfast, with occasional Catholic enclaves, is gradually turning into the opposite. Rows of houses lie empty and derelict in Protestant areas. In Catholic zones, families have to wait for years to be re-housed.

Every square foot of land is considered either Protestant or Catholic "territory." Fearing a bloody backlash, authorities do not attempt to move Catholics into empty Protestant homes.

Meanwhile, rock-throwing and other vandalism committed by both sides continues.

Mrs. Riley says that it was Glenbryn's feeling of being neglected that spurred its residents to take to the streets last week, shouting anti-Catholic insults and attracting worldwide media attention. In the end, she says, it matters little whether they protest or not: "The world doesn't care about us or understand us either way."

Those feelings of vulnerability are being fanned by politicians such as the Democratic Unionist leader, Ian Paisley, who has told Protestants that the Good Friday peace agreement signed in 1998 was a sellout.

Meanwhile, some Protestants find Northern Ireland's changing demographics unsettling. The Protestant majority has shrunk from 70 percent in the 1920s to roughly 58 percent today, with Catholic majorities in four of the six counties.

In the past 30 years of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, 3,500 people have died, nearly a quarter of them here in North Belfast, where the patchwork of Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods pressed together makes for a volatile mix. Mrs. Riley's husband was killed by the IRA 27 years ago.

Her experience of poverty and bereavement is shared by many Catholics in neighboring Ardoyne, who point out that despite years of discrimination and neglect, they have never resorted to the orchestrated screaming of abuse at children on their way to school. "Our community has suffered greatly, but we have never descended to the depths of this depravity," says Brendan Mailey, the spokesman for the Catholic parents, whose 8-year-old daughter attends Holy Cross.

Since the protest began, many of the 5- to 11-year-old schoolgirls have been prescribed tranquilizers by their doctors. Their parents are, likewise, living on edge, with tears never far away.Two mothers and one father are now living away from home afterloyalist death threats.

Eight-year-old Gemma McCabe attended a full day of class for the first time yesterday. Last week, the ugly incidents at the school left her in tears and throwing up from fear. Yesterday, she and her mother, Sharon, took a 3/4-mile detour to enter by the school's back door, and the child insisted that her father, Gerard, remain at the school with her.

Sharon McCabe finds the sectarian insults hurled at her and her daughter last week particularly disturbing. "I have brought my children up to respect both traditions here and told them that there's good and bad in everyone. Where does this hatred for us come from? What have we done to deserve it?"

Eight members of Mr. and Mrs. McCabe's family have been killed in the past three decades.

The Rev. Aidan Troy, the rector of Holy Cross Monastery and chairman of the school's board of governors, says that unless a solution is soon found to the protests, there is a danger that Ardoyne schoolgirls walking the Protestant gantlet "could become a long-term routine."

The Northern Irish parliament yesterday debated a resolution introduced by Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, saying that children should be guaranteed the right to attend school without intimidation.

Key to any successful process of talks will be a sense that both communities are being heard by the British government, and their own neighbors. Analysts say the challenge facing the British government, and its Northern Ireland Secretary, John Reid, will be to give each a sense of their grievances being validated and addressed, fairly and even-handedly. Mr. Reid returned Friday, three days early from his annual vacation, clearly stunned and appalled at the deep-rooted sectarianism exposed by the Ardoyne school protest.

Paul Arthur, professor of politics at the University of Ulster, says it will be very difficult for the British government to put this genie back into its bottle. "Loyalists are so distrustful of the British government that it may have to over-compensate them to begin building trust. There is more trust for John Reid within that community than there is for the prime minister, Tony Blair, so his role will be crucial."

"On a more positive note, you could say that the shame of what happened in Ardoyne may have startled more moderate loyalists into looking for a way out of what is a potentially very difficult situation for them," Mr. Arthur says.

"On the other hand," he says, "there are loyalists who do not want a way out of the Ardoyne conflict, who are opposed to the whole peace process and the Good Friday Agreement and are quite happy to use tensions in North Belfast to push that agenda."

Church leaders have unanimously condemned the violence of the Protestant protests and the sectarian abuse which has terrified the little girls and their parents.

The Church of Ireland (Protestant) Primate, Archbishop Robin Eames, said the vast majority of his co-religionists were disgusted and insisted the children should no longer be subjected to such an ordeal. "We are utterly revolted by those scenes outside the school," he said. "There is a wave of revulsion across this province.

"I believe we must take the moral ground, which says that little children should never be subjected to this sort of attention. Secondly, we must make sure that the underlying causes of this, particularly in North Belfast, are now brought out and examined."

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