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Tuesday, 15 January, 2002, 14:21 GMT
Are children being used as political pawns?
A major security operation has been mounted by the police and army to protect teachers and pupils at all schools in north Belfast.

Assistant chief constable Alan McQuillan said the security forces wanted to ensure that pupils and teachers were able to get to and from school safely.

On Monday morning, the Boys' Model Secondary School, which has a majority of Protestant pupils, was evacuated following a telephone bomb warning. It turned out to be a hoax.

This comes after last week's rioting which followed a dispute outside the Catholic Holy Cross girls' primary school in Ardoyne, which was at the centre of loyalist protests last term.

Have the children of north Belfast become political pawns? Has the latest spate of violence marked a major setback for sustained peace in the province?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

I would like to reply to three comments here. Firstly Steve Blake, UK. I am a police officer in Northern Ireland and have been so for a number of years. I work day in and day out with my Catholic and Protestant colleagues. I have no interest in what religion they are, nor do I care. We work and socialise together as friends. I also have both Catholic and Protestant friends ouside of work.

Secondly to Neill Stewart, UK. I have worked in this area for a time and can assure you that children learn to throw stones at the police and army as soon as they are big enough to lift a stone. (this goes for both sides).

Lastly to F. Kelly, Switzerland. She asks about the religious side of this. If this was truely about religion and not a bunch of thugs fighting for their gangs they would not turn on the police as soon as they arrived but would return to their own areas knowing that they will now not be able to fight with their sworn enemies. This obviously is not the case.

To everyone form outside of Northern Ireland, do not believe all you see on TV, this is a small area that is at the moment causing all the problems while the rest of the country happily goes about its daily business in peace.
Phil, Northern Ireland

If we are educated and live apart from each other... we won't understand each other.

C Brown, Belfast
I'm not saying that I have a universal panacea but if our children continue to be educated at single faith schools on both these islands then the situation in the North of this city is simply an appetizer of whats ahead. Until I was 18 I only knew one Catholic. I was lucky and had the opportunity to go to university where I was able to integrate with other religions and cultures from different parts of the world - including Irish Catholics - many of whom our now my friends. If we are educated and live apart from each other as we grow up we will see each other as different, we won't understand each other. This will lead to fear and as a result we will continue to see each other as a threat. I do not see Catholics as a threat - they are human beings just like me. It is futile for the two peoples of this tiny region to wage war against each other, but I fear that divisions are deepening rather than healing. It breaks my heart to see parts of the city I love at each others throat. "We must realise that the future of our two peoples are tied together" - Richard Haas US foreign secretary
C Brown, Belfast

How come Religion is still such an issue in a supposedly sensible society? Even if there was such a thing as God, dooes anyone really believe that he would invent two sects and only one is the true religion. From what I know about Catholics and Protestants, they both worship the same 'being' and the whole idea is to be nice to each other and you will go to heaven. Maybe I just missed the bit about Thou must throw stones at police and terrorise children.
Wendy, UK

Seems it has far more to do with the lawless loosely organized mob movements than anything to do with religion. The kids, postal workers, teachers and most anyone nowadays in NI are being used in this "war" the mobs, on all sides, need to be destroyed, and soon.
Stephen, USA

Surely the parents of all these hate-filled people are to blame?

Lisa, UK (US ex-pat)
After 5 years in the UK, I'm still not to grips with the underlying issues but looking at the riots on television, it looks very much like hooligans and badly behaved teenagers are being allowed to run riot. Surely the parents of all these hate-filled people are to blame?
Lisa, UK (US ex-pat)

The thing I find funny (if it wasn't so tragic and pathetic) with these rioters is that they do things like kick armoured cars with their trainers. This is a bit like these Palestinians throwing stones at tanks. What exactly is it supposed to achieve?
Andrew Stevenson, New Zealand

Whenever children can live and learn together, they will learn to live together. It's sad they must retain these sectarian schools.
Wm Thompson, Canada

Surely these rioters should be classed as terrorists, because if you ask the children whether they are terrified by the trouble they will undoubtedly say they are.
James, England

Should we be sending our children to schools that predominantly serve only one religion?

Jonathon, UK
The cycle of religious and cultural hatred is very difficult to break if we continue to reinforce those feelings with a divisive and separatist society. I feel that the answer may lie with increased human contact and understanding from people involved in all sides, from an early age. It seems terrible to many that this school has served to focus people's hatred onto one another. But perhaps it should serve to highlight the question: should we be sending our children to schools that predominantly serve only one religion? Does this not divide our society and teach children only how to relate to others very similar to themselves? Are we not breeding a new generation of separatists in this way? We should be teaching mutual understanding, not the virtues of division. The children of today (and their children) are the ones who can break the cycle of hatred, just by talking and relating to each other as ordinary human beings. However, we are not always giving them this chance freely, and some of them may possibly be those who build the pipe bombs of tomorrow.
Jonathan, UK

A friend of mine who is a primary school teacher in Belfast asked her pupils to write what they had done at the weekend. One little girl wrote "On Saturday, daddy taught me how to throw stones at the soldiers". This child's comment says volumes about the insanity of the situation in Northern Ireland and the lack of respect that the people who promote the violence have for their own children.
Neill Stewart , UK

Yes, these children are being used as pawns. But they're not political pawns. They're the victims of gangland warfare, disguised as politics to make it look more "respectable". And the sad thing is that if nobody puts a stop to this and locks up the people responsible as the criminals they are (and not release them early as political prisoners) the kids who are currently frightened and crying will be taking part in the same riots in 5-10 years time.
Christine, UK

Some of the comments sent in regarding the situation in North Belfast are nothing short of ignorance. How dare people who have never set foot in Northern Ireland comment so frivolously on something like this. I ask people from the US - is this any different than riots between blacks and whites? I ask people in the rest of Great Britain, is what we see at some of the football grounds much different than this? As always, actions such as these are committed by nothing more than scum - whom we all know are nothing more than a small unintelligent minority of the population. Obviously, as it is Northern Ireland it will be intrinsically linked to religion but please do not look on this one incident as a fair reflection of the rest of our society where so much good work has been done. Perhaps if we all looked closer to home before remarking on other country's situations, global problems like this would soon be resolved.
Geoff, Northern Ireland

The government has lost control of the whole situation

Dr. Paul Mackey, Northern Ireland
This situation in North Belfast is reprehensible and unacceptable. The government has lost control of the whole situation. There are a number of things I cannot understand and would like to highlight.

  • For many years the decent law abiding people of Northern Ireland & the Security Forces worked hard to put the criminals & terrorists/murderers behind bars. Tony Blair has freed any criminal who claims to be part of a terrorist organisation. They run around the streets agitating and causing trouble. What else did the authorities expect? We are seeing the results of the freeing of terrorist thugs.
  • Is it not about time the Catholic Church stopped insisting on segregated education?
  • The education minister in Northern Ireland is a self confessed IRA commander. I would remind people of the school children the IRA have killed and maimed. The IRA planted a bomb on a train at school leaving time when I was at school and killed a pupil from Friends School in Lisburn. It is a bizarre situation to have a terrorist as Minister for Education.
  • Have the US forgotten they supplied the IRA with copious amounts of money thereby fuelling terrorist activity and resulting hatred in Northern Ireland?
What Northern Ireland needs is a society completely free from threat. That means the terrorist groups must disarm and surrender their weapons. The government has shown the people of Northern Ireland that terrorism works. They have given everything to the terrorist criminals, who are never going to be satisfied. Tensions grow and violence is tempting when you have seen it work for others. The only way to stop the violence is for a strong government to take a grip of the situation and win the war against terrorism.
Dr. Paul Mackey, Northern Ireland

The assumption that this is a political argument is wrong. The rioters are simply looking for a fight and this is a good excuse. I don't understand why the police and army should take the brunt of the attacks. Why not heard both sides into a field and let them get stuck in to one another? It would stop peoples cars, homes and schools getting wrecked and get rid of a good dozen or so troublemakers at the same time.
David Heffron, Glasgow

Nationalism and loyalism should be obsolete by now but people who depend on it for power will not let it die

Michael, Dublin, Ireland
I think most people realise that these demonstrations of violence have nothing to do with religion or idealism. This has everything to do with criminal power and the perpetrators using the history of the communities to legitimise themselves. In Dublin and other European cities we have joy riders and lower class thugs but because we are without the "unique" background of Northern Ireland things rarely escalate so much. The problem is as it always was a class issue hijacked by gangsters. Nationalism and loyalism should be obsolete by now but people who depend on it for power will not let it die.
Michael, Dublin, Ireland

This highlights one of the problems with faith based schools. If the children of both faiths were going to the same school there would not only be no rioting (how can you be sure your petrol bomb wouldn't hit one of your own kids) but the children would grow up realising that "them and us" is untrue - there would only be "us".
Richard Boesch, England

They're pawns alright. Whether it qualifies as politics is another issue.

I think it's disgusting that people who share the same God but different ideas of God's religion can condone and participate in violence like we've seen, and especially against children who are simply going to school.
Ian Westwood, UK

It is absolutely despicable that children are brought into any contact with this sort of violence at all. Those who perpetrate any violence, whether physical or not in the vicinity of schoolchildren should be treated the same as child abusers, for that is what they are. My take on the situation is that the whole conflict is too political. It has hampered the real necessary action - punish anyone who engages in violent behaviour. This is the message we are trying to relay to rest of the world. The Northern Ireland conflict is an embarrassment not only to the UK but to all of the western world.
Michael B, USA

They are simply trying to take their children to school

Charles Moore, Scotland
We have to be clear here. These people are not marching up and down this street with placards or brass bands. They are simply trying to take their children to school. The parents have to make a choice between being accused of "using their children as pawns" or bringing them up to think that they have to duck and dive down back-alleys in order to make a perfectly legitimate routine journey. In this context they might well be accused of letting their children down by not standing up for their rights.
Charles Moore, Scotland

I agree with Charles Moore's comments wholeheartedly. All that these parents are doing is taking their children to school. How can that possibly be seen as using them as pawns unless it is viewed through a very biased pair of sectarian eyes.
Tony Smith, UK

Yes, the children are pawns in this conflict. The Catholics and Protestants are also pawns; their reputation being continually dragged through the dirt by these thugs who aren't Christian at all.
David Slatter, Bristol, UK

After more than 20 years of bloodshed, we had peace of a sort when the paramilitary ceasefires were announced. Then along came Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam, Peter Mandelson and John Reid who gave Sinn Fein/IRA everything they demanded. Now look at the mess we're in!
Steve, Doncaster

These scenes remind me of Little Rock, 1956. New talks needed urgently with back-up by leaders.
R. Samawicz, Virginia, USA

Just for once I'd like to hear about a few Catholics and Protestants who get on, hang out, have a beer, perhaps even worship together occasionally. There must be a few working relationships out there!
Steve Blake, UK

Steve Blake comments, "Just for once I'd like to hear about a few Catholics and Protestants who get on, hang out, have a beer, perhaps even worship together occasionally. There must be a few working relationships out there!"

Of course there are, Steve, but you will not hear of those excellent inter-community and inter-faith relationships through the media. Good news for the community is bad news for the media. Those of us who are engaged in positive inter-community work have are not considered to be newsworthy.
Billy Mitchell, North Belfast

What a peace we have ...

P Moore, Northern Ireland
The fact remains that Northern Ireland has descended into a state where more and more control is passed into the hands of the Terrorists (on both sides!) as they swap their bombs and shootings, for drugs, racketeering, money laundering, baseball bats for "Community Restorative Justice". It's good to see Peace isn't it?

Yes, we should ban all paramilitary paraphernalia, we should crack down on them all with a complete zero tolerance approach. Children are being used and abused for political gains, but this is sadly nothing new, and I'm certain that despite all efforts to the contrary, these things will continue, sadly, long into the future unless we stamp it out firmly now. What a peace we have ...
P Moore, Northern Ireland, UK

Not everyone in Ulster supports this kind of violence. If you ask me, these people are bigots for shouting abuse at innocent children who just want to go and get what they are entitled to, which is a good education. However I also must say that if I had any kids I wouldn't let them go through this kind of trouble only to bring my point across. My kids wouldn't be walking down that road.
Annie, Belfast, NI

These people ought to be ashamed of themselves. This is a time to bring peace into our troubled world. Have the lessons of September 11th been forgotten already?
Susan, NYC, USA

The incidents in the Ardoyne area involve a minority of extremists who use sectarianism as an excuse for violence. The majority of the Province abhor such acts and want a peaceful life - I know this as I have family there. At the end of the day neither side cares about the school children. Whilst the Loyalists actions can only be condemned and deplored, why build a Catholic school in a Protestant area? Why then insist on being antagonistic by using the front entrance when there is a safer route, unless you are willing to subject your child to such hostility?
Kay Storey, UK

The situation that exists in the Ardoyne is in no way representative of Northern Ireland as a whole.

John, Northern Ireland
Forget Protestant and Catholic, the Ardoyne is a deprived area with high unemployment and high levels of poverty. Such areas also exist in other UK cities, and similar riots are also found there. This is just a matter of two groups of thugs using a "label" to identify their tribe, in much the same way as football hooligans do. This has nothing to do with religion or nationality. The situation that exists in the Ardoyne is in no way representative of Northern Ireland as a whole.
John, Northern Ireland

I find some of the comments posted here just as depressing as the violence in North Belfast. Let me put a few things in context: the area being discussed is a small area in a large and now largely peaceful city. The frustration being expressed is the result of decades of under-investment in both communities. The truly tragic thing about North Belfast is that both communities could and should be united by a recognition of class injustice. It has served the middle class representatives of both communities, as well as the media and the British government, to fan the flames of sectarianism during the Troubles in order to maintain a status quo of political fatalism and subservience. Last night's rioting - paltry when compared to events prior to the Peace Process - makes headline news because of the over determined media culture in Belfast. Too many journalists need to make a headline and so internecine disagreements, as depressing and objectionable as they are, make BIG news!

Finally, comments that Britain boasts a tradition of 'tolerance' are completely laughable: cast your mind back to Bradford in the summer, or ask any ethnic minority whether they've enjoyed this so-called tradition. Belfast is now no different from any other large British or European city constituted of diverse communities: there will always be urban flashpoints.
S Kelly , Northern Ireland

Shame, shame, shame! The behaviour on both sides of the Northern Ireland divide is abominable. Put the children first and try to bring peace in your own part of the world. What happened to all the good intentions expressed after September 11?
Margaret Mitchell, USA/Scotland

Children are being targeted by loyalists - they are not being used by anyone else as political pawns.

Liam ” RŠiste, Antrim
I believe your reference to 'children being used as political pawns' is misleading. Children are being targeted by loyalists - they are not being used by anyone else as political pawns. This spin on a tragic story is being repeated in order to equate both sides in the public perception when it is fairly clear that one side is aggressively pursuing a sectarian agenda.

The people who are rioting are not solely to blame - responsibility must also be accepted by unionist and loyalist politicians who are indulging their alleged 'alienation' from the sidelines with tall tales of increasing Protestant disaffection with the Good Friday Agreement. The object of this is to create some sort of a movement for renegotiation of the GFA and specifically the Equality Agenda aspect of it. In the final analysis, the main reason for Protestant/loyalist/unionist disaffection is that finally they're being made to realise that they are not, after all, inherently superior to their Catholic neighbours. The sooner this fundamental fact is addressed, the sooner Holy Cross and other sectarian interface flashpoints can be relieved.
Liam ” RŠiste, Antrim

I think last night's violence was utterly deplorable. When are these people going to learn that they should be bringing peace into this world not rioting over what route children should take to school. They should be ashamed of themselves.
John, England

Why are we still supporting anyone in Northern Ireland? They show by their actions that they do not wish to be part of this country's tradition of tolerance and diversity. The answer is therefore simple. Let them have their wish. Before anyone says that the problem is a minority, may I point out that the majority know who is causing the problems, but choose to do nothing. The majority are therefore just as guilty.
Tony Swithenby, UK

To Tony Swithenby: The UK's "tradition of tolerance and diversity" is a ridiculous statement. Not unlike my own country, tolerance and diversity are, historically speaking, pretty new to the UK and the USA. And both of our nations are feeling the repercussions of the great injustices we have committed against people in our own lands for centuries. In the USA the descendents of African slaves as well as the Native Americans have taken us to task for the plight of their peoples today. The same applies to the Catholics of Northern Ireland and other peoples of the "United Kingdom" that were treated as second class peoples simply because of their religion or ethnicity - or class for that matter. The UK has a responsibility to see the Ulster problem through to the end as it is ultimately a result of the policies of the former British Empire.
Patrick, USA

This kind of lunacy shows how deep rooted the hatred in Northern Ireland is. The only answer is to pull out completely, sell them large quantities of powerful weapons, and allow them to settle their differences that way. Diplomacy and common sense clearly have no part to play.
Chris Cowdery, UK

It is now all about power, money from the drugs trade and extortion rackets because there is no profit in peace

Angela, Northern Ireland
I would like to reply to Chris Cowdery's comments. How dare you assume that we are all like these people. The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland just want to live in peace and bring their children up in an ordinary and uneventful way and get on well with all sections of their communities. But this is the side that you do not see. The troubles in North Belfast and elsewhere in the Protestant and Catholic "ghettos" have long since moved beyond the issue of religion. It is now all about power and who controls the money from the drugs trade and extortion rackets because there is no profit in peace.

As for your comments about letting us have high-powered weapons and allowing us to kill each other - do you also suggest this as a solution to the ethnic riots in England? I know what you are going to say - it is not the same but it is the same principle. I don't know what the answers to the problems are - I wish I did but comments like yours don't help. So please don't tar us all with the same brush. If people took the time to come here and see for themselves, they would see that this is one of the most beautiful and stunning countries on the face of this earth and we are really quite friendly. And contrary to what some people think we don't go around shooting each other all day.
Angela, Northern Ireland

I'm interested in Angela's comments above. Could it be that this is no longer about religion or nationalism, but is just a turf war? The drug gangs in Los Angeles used to hide behind the Rights movement, pretending to be involved in the struggle for the American Black and Hispanic minorities. Viewed from that angle, it looks more like a law enforcement issue, and cuts the feet out from under the nationalists and loyalists. They're no longer idealists, just gang lords.
David Thalenberg, UK

Amazing the lack of sense shown by most of these comments, with the honourable exception of the woman from Northern Ireland. Most residents of Ulster are just like us, not bigots, the question is how to address criminal minorities. As she pointed out, much of the problem is the criminal empires the various paramilitaries have built under cover of The Cause, and dismantling these has fatally not been included as a vital part of the much-hyped Peace Process.
alistair Fletcher, UK

Both sides are just a bunch of bigots. The sad thing is that when these children grow up they'll be bigots too. This is where religion gets you.
Jim, UK

Using children to make a point of protest is beyond understanding

Mark Dowe, Scotland
Using children of religious denominations to make a point of protest is beyond understanding. Education for children is an entirely separate situation from the division that has marked the North of Ireland in recent decades. Previous arguments have been put across for allowing future generations not to suffer the same hatred and bitterness that have gone before but these actions stifle this argument. The younger generations must be allowed to grow up in a free society. I think the church has done its rightful duty in postponing school for the day. Had the normal day gone ahead a serious setback could have occurred between communities and resident organisations involved in more peaceful negotiations. Peace must be allowed to continue.
Mark Dowe, Scotland

Last night's troubles apparently kicked off after two people failed to pass each other on a pavement. It is not a surprise that they have no consideration for children other, than as a means to further the conflict. It is desperately and frustratingly pathetic.
Stu, Sweden

It must be hard for the people who are involved to understand that they are being driven by their own emotions. If they took one look at their own children and saw the very real fear that is etched on their faces - they might stop this madness for good. They need to stand back and begin to think and make decisions logically instead of allowing their emotions to control them. Is there nobody in this crazed community with the maturity and sense to lead on this?
Jan H, UK

Yes these children are being used as pawns and sadly they will grow up to hate each other too. The hatred, mistrust and fear has nothing to do with religion. The use of labelling the sides as Protestants and Catholics is merely to identify their background, history and perhaps where their loyalty lies. Politicians must help the people of NI from both sides of the community to create an equal province. The past in this context is unhelpful. NI can be a wonderful new country where people from all backgrounds can feel happy to come from and belong to. This of course takes courage and compromise. A line must be drawn under what has happened in the past and who did what to whom. Both the Irish and British flags should be banned, as should all displays commemorating or honouring paramilitary events.
Susan N, UK

It appears to me that there are a lot of Protestants and a lot of Catholics in Ireland, but very few Christians.
Geoff, England

I hope these children see that what is going on is wrong

Rob, UK
Sadly, yes, these children are being used as pawns. All I can hope is that when these children grow up they will have the strength of mind to see that what is going on is wrong and that everlasting peace must be achieved. It sickens me that Northern Ireland has continued to be a problem throughout my whole lifetime. It's an embarrassment to successive governments, who have tried to sort it out. All the parties need to do is to throw religion to one side and stick to a political agenda. Then perhaps, the real spirituality of Northern Ireland can come back.
Rob, UK

The riots started at about lunchtime and carried on until 2am. So presumably the people rioting are unemployed and have nothing better to do with their lives. Such people would probably riot over anything given half a chance
Peter, UK

Doesn't the Catholic community realise they are playing right into the hands of their "enemy" through this sort of action? And what will happen come the marching season - will these same protestors argue that the Orangemen can't walk down the Drumcree road?
Craig Miller, UK

In spite of what atheists would tell you, these disputes have very little to do with religion, which is only part of the identities of both groups. The majority of people on both sides rarely attend church. History, separate schools, other cultural differences and politics are just as important. The solution will only be made on the ground and it is frustrating to hear politicians such as John Reid condemning the violence and then never doing anything at community level to confront the reasons for the mutual hatred. Go to Ardoyne yourself John, and find out!
George Martin, UK

What hope is there for a solution when the communities hate each other so much? Their hatred even goes as far as the abuse of these kids who are entitled to an education. These bigots are killing their own communities and they don't care. Why should we help them any more?
Mikeb, UK

Of course the children are being used as pawns. These people will keep stooping to new depths in order to get their point across.
Steve, UK

If this is really a battle between Catholics and Protestants, I would be interested to find out how many of them are regular church goers and how many actually practice these religions they fight for so passionately. When I see this kind of violence on TV, it just looks to me like a gang of thugs taking the opportunity to fight with whatever means they can against the police. Their religious beliefs are long forgotten. Sadly, they don't have the brains to see what trauma they are causing to these poor children who have no choice but to become political pawns.
F Kelly, Switzerland (ex UK)

See also:

10 Jan 02 | Northern Ireland
Talks follow night of riots
10 Jan 02 | Northern Ireland
Footpath row 'led to riots'
10 Jan 02 | Northern Ireland
Police hurt in Belfast riots
09 Jan 02 | Northern Ireland
Rioting follows NI school dispute
09 Nov 01 | Northern Ireland
Protesters resume school dispute
03 Sep 01 | Northern Ireland
Ardoyne Stories: Peace lines and division

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