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Monday, 3 September, 2001, 17:49 GMT 18:49 UK
Eyewitness: Sectarian clashes at school
Protestants clash with the police outside Holy Cross School
By BBC News Online's Dominic Casciani in Belfast

For the hundreds of children due at the Catholic Holy Cross Girl's Primary School in Ardoyne, it should have been a day of full of excitement, the first day of term. New bright red jumpers, smart skirts, Mickey Mouse lunchboxes and skipping ropes.

Instead, they began their morning facing abuse from a crowd of hundreds of grown men and women as a summer of tension between the two communities exploded into sectarian hatred.


I had to explain to my daughter what might happen and just told her, not to worry, I'll always be holding your little hand. Just don't look at the protesters because they can't do you any harm. She was so, so brave

Ardoyne mother Elaine Burns
This was a nasty territorial battle in the heart of Belfast's most divided community. In the middle of it were some 200 Catholic children aged between four and 11-years-old who attend a school just inside what has ostensibly become a Protestant area.

"If we want to turn ourselves into the European version of the West Bank, we're going a bloody good way about it," said one parent shaking with rage at the scenes he had just witnessed.

The loyalist protesters did not want the children to go down the street because they believe that republicans are using it as cover to provoke their community.


This has nothing to do with the children, this has everything to do with the republicans who are attacking our community and are using the children

Jim Potts, Protestant residents' group
They gathered early at their end of the Ardoyne Road, signaling their determination to stage a demonstration despite the high security force presence.

Dozens of police officers and soldiers had erected a plastic tunnel-cum-shield by 8am which they hoped would protect the parents and children.

It may have protected almost all of them from physical abuse, but not from the verbal abuse that came with it. One mother who was targeted by protesters, Elaine Burns, described what she had experienced.

As she spoke, she was visibly distressed, her hands shaking. "Women, mothers my own age, were screaming at me, calling me a 'fenian whore'. Our priest was called a child molestor.

"It was vile sectarian language. I had to explain to my daughter before we left what might happen and just told her, not to worry, I'll always be holding your little hand. Just don't look at the protesters because they won't do us any harm. She was so, so brave.

"This was truly desperate. I saw some awful things as I grew up but this was something far worse. She'll never forget what she saw."

Priest abused

Many parents tried to stay close to the parish priest, Father Aidan Troy, as he walked through the blockade.

"This was one of the most awful things I have ever seen. It was naked hatred towards children," said Father Troy.

"Having walked up there this morning, you cannot let children do that again."

As the tearful and frightened children entered the safety of the school, surrounded by riot-clad police officers, many of their parents broke down amid the jeers from the crowd and the drone of the army helicopter hovering overhead.

Home time

As the day wore on, the tension rose yet again ahead of the expected departure of the children.

Youths clashed with the RUC before they were pushed into a side road, away from the school entrance.

Judy Haughey attempts to get her children into school at Holy Cross
Judy Haughey: "Absolute sheer terror"
But teachers and parents had decided they would leave via a games area at the back of the school, rather than put the children through the same scenes.

Catholic taxi drivers volunteered to ferry children and parents back and fourth through the day.

Judy Haughey was one mother who lost a day's work after succeeding in getting her daughters Cora and Lucilla into school, only to find herself trapped there.

"I lost one of my daughters in the panic. My friend ran back to her up because I was holding my hands over my other girl's ears because I didn't want her to hear what they were shouting.

"These are supposed to be big men out there - well what kind of man treats a little girl this way?"

Condemnation

Jim Potts, of the Protestant group which began demonstrations in June, refused to condemn the events.

Tears: Parents broke down in the school
Tears: Parents broke down in the school
"More than 200 nationalists were allowed up towards the school even though they did not have children with them. That was provocative.

"I have to ask what kind of parent in their right mind brings a child through this?

"This has nothing to do with the children, this has everything to do with the republicans who are attacking our community and are using the children.

"This is a loyalist community. Why was the school ever built there in the first place? What the government can do is build a new school for these children in [Catholic] Ardoyne."

Billy Hutchinson, the Progressive Unionist Party assemblyman for the area, accused five leading IRA men of having walked along with the children in a deliberately provocative action.

"It is going to take a long, long time to solve this. What influence that we have had here today had gone because of the police's actions and the republicans on the road.

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