A news report on the Holy Cross school protest (2001)

In September 2001 Protestants in an area of Belfast blockaded and protested outside a Catholic primary school, following a period of sectarian tension and unrest. This article, from the UK Daily Mirror on September 4th 2001, reports on the unrest outside the Holy Cross school:

Their first lesson: bigotry

Mob hurls stones at four-year-olds as they start school in a city of hate

Like all children embarking on their schooldays, the new Primary pupils at Holy Cross were nervous and worried. But the four-year-old girls from the fraught streets of north Belfast were not daunted by the prospect of new teachers and unfamiliar surroundings. They were terrified yesterday because they were being forced to walk a gauntlet of Protestant hatred to get to their classrooms.

As they arrived holding their mothers hands, burying their tear-stained faces in their clothes, a loyalist mob bayed, waved placards, flung bottles and stones, leaned through the ranks of armed riot police and spat threats.

The children stumbled through a barrage of missiles and fighting as 100 police and a contingent of Scots Guards carved a way for them. Their homes in the Catholic Ardoyne are just 500 yards from the Catholic girls’ primary school – but they must cross Protestant streets in this bitterly divided area.

As the girls’ sobs filled the air with the choked snarls of the mob, the sounds drifted over Belfast and seemed to set the city back years. The classmates’ fears had been stoked by a summer-long sectarian battle over the nondescript stretch of road leading to the school.

Anywhere else in the world parents would be delighted to have a good school, high achieving and well disciplined, only a couple of hundred yards from their front door. But in scenes reminiscent of Alabama in America’s deep south 40 years ago, a path through centuries of bigotry, decades of violence and months of rising tension had to be cleared to allow children to reach their desks for the first time.

The loyalists have their grievances. They claim they have been unable to reach the local library, that old people have not been able to collect their pensions at the post office and Protestant homes have been the target of sectarian attacks. At the end of the summer term they decided that until their grievances were sorted Catholic children would not be allowed to walk Protestant streets to their school.

Three months of talks, with each side blaming the other for intransigence, never had any real chance. The summer saw mounting sectarian clashes and pipe bomb attacks, mostly on Catholic homes as loyalist paramilitaries sought to drive them out and create new Protestant ghettos.

Speaking for the Protestants, Jim Potts, of the Glenbryn Residents, revealed how deep the divisions go: ‘This is a loyalist area. Why was a Catholic school ever built here in the first place? What the British government should do is build them a new school in the Catholic part of Ardoyne. That would solve this problem.’

For Gemma McAuley, mother of four-year-old Shauna, it was all too much. ‘We have been dreading this day all summer,’ she said after she had carried her child in at a run. ‘We thought we knew what was coming but nothing prepared us for what actually happened. Shauna was in tears all morning and she just went to pieces. I never heard insults like it in my life and they were being directed at my daughter. She hasn’t been brought up to hate anybody but I wouldn’t be surprised if that changed.’

Gemma said she will find another school. ‘I hate giving in to bigots but I have my child’s safety to think of. Who is to say some madman, full of hate, won’t come along and blow the school up with the kids inside?’

Little Emma McGann, starting with Shauna, said: ‘It was really, really scary. I thought they were going to hurt me and my mummy. I might be too scared to go back.’ Her mother, Isabelle said: ‘When I took her last week to get her uniform she started crying in the shop, saying she was so scared that she wanted to go to another school. She cried all summer because she was afraid – and it was even worse than she had feared’.”