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Monday, 3 September, 2001, 17:54 GMT 18:54 UK
Q&A: Tension in north Belfast
BBC News Online explains the background to the 12 week dispute over children attending a Catholic school in north Belfast which was called off on Friday following negotiations between protesters and the Northern Ireland First and Deputy First Ministers

Why had a dispute over a route to a school become so important in Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland has reached the end of a difficult and tense summer which has seen violence fill the gap left by the failure of the political parties to find a way through the deadlock over the Good Friday Agreement.

Throughout the Troubles, local community tensions have often triggered more violence or instability elsewhere.

Ardoyne in north Belfast has long been one such trigger because it is an "interface" between Catholic and Protestant communities, living in streets only a few yards apart.

It is in these conditions that a minor dispute can suddenly escalate into something more sinister with ramifications for the whole of the peace process.

Some of the scenes witnessed this year in Ardoyne have echoed earlier and more bloody periods of sectarianism, stretching as far back as the nineteenth century.

So what was the spark this year?

Tensions between republicans and loyalists began building up in the area at the start of the year. Each side alleges that paramilitary leaders on the other side have been orchestrating the tension for their own ends.

But the tensions came to a head in June in a dispute over access to the Catholic Holy Cross Girls' Primary school.

Some Catholic children who attend Holy Cross pass through a few hundred yards of a Protestant area to reach the school gates.

Some of the Protestant residents refused to let children reach the school saying their community was facing republican attacks and intimidation. Nationalists made similar allegations concerning paramilitary attacks.

Within days more more than 600 people were involved in rioting as the rival communities clashed. Both sides attacked the police as live ammunition was fired and petrol bombs thrown.

Police officers found it almost impossible to contain the situation. The RUC chief constable described those he believed to be organising the violence as "scum".

What happened when the children returned to school at the beginning of the school year in September?

There were many attempts at mediation throughout the summer but to no avail. On 3 September as the children returned to school, they were met by a crowd of more than 200 loyalists. The crowd, hurling abuse at the children, clashed with the security forces. Many of the children and parents were extremely distressed when they reached the school.

The protesters said that was only one side of the story. They said that leading republicans used the cover of the children to walk into their predominantly Protestant area and taunt the residents, provoking the response.

What have the Protestant residents said about the violence?

The Concerned Residents of Upper Ardoyne (CRUA) described republican attacks against their community as a "constant state of siege". Many believed there was an orchestrated attempt to force their community out and they demanded that the nationalist residents do more to prevent the attacks.

They said that it was impossible to prevent protests at the school unless the threat against their community recedes.

What about the nationalist residents?

Nationalist residents banded together into a group called Right to Education. They said that the children's needs for schooling could not be linked to the Protestant community's wider concerns and they could not be held responsible for the actions of others. They too said they faced attacks from dissident loyalists.

What about the paramilitaries?

The security forces said that paramilitaries from both communities were active in the area and had orchestrated violence over the summer. Some paramilitaries are understood to have been involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations to find a solution before the situation deteriorated in September.

So where does this leave the school and the school children?

The staff at Holy Cross school said they would try their best to ensure that the school is a haven away from the tensions in the area. Its staff have worked closely with teachers at a nearby Protestant school in the hope that they can provide an example of co-operation to both communities.

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