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Tuesday, 4 September, 2001, 16:26 GMT 17:26 UK
Children and sectarianism
Children are shielded by the army on their way to school
School time in North Belfast
To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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BBC Ireland correspondent Denis Murray took your questions on the Holy Cross School clashes in a live forum.

For the second day children going to school in the Holy Cross Primary school in Ardoyne have been subjected to the ugly face of sectarianism.

The Catholic school is situated in the heart of a Protestant estate. The loyalist population are objecting to the children walking up their road to get to the school.

The Catholic parents say they have been using that road and that entrance for decades and are not going to be driven away.

The Protestant loyalist community is surrounded by a much larger Catholic area. The loyalists say they are constantly subjected to sectarian attacks from their Catholic neighbours.

The Catholic community say they too are subjected to attacks.

The dispute around the school began in June and despite attempts at dialogue, the issue remains unresolved.

But what of the children, clearly frightened and upset they are back today to go to school.

We were joined by representatives of the community in north Belfast to answer your questions about the ongoing situation.


Transcript:


Newshost:

Dennis Murray, a question for you. Dennis, can you explain the situation as we have seen it over the last two days?


Dennis Murray:

It's very complicated. It all began in June - north Belfast has got more interfaces than any other part of Northern Ireland - at the time I remember a senior police officer saying that there were sectarian incidents in north Belfast virtually year round. But this erupted because Loyalists said that Catholics had beaten up a young man putting up flags. Loyalists were saying that Catholics were trying to take their houses - Loyalists were throwing pipe bombs. The two areas are very close together but because of the demographics the primary school that the kids go to is just a couple of hundred yards up the road in the Protestant area.

This protest started in June and at that time the police said, on a security basis, no, we can't let the children and the parents use their normal way of going to school - please go another route so they come in the back of the school. But this time the police have clearly taken a conscious decision that there is a right for parents and children to go to the classroom and on two days running the parents and the children have been taken to the school by the police.

Yesterday there were extremely ugly scenes - probably unexpected as much by the parents and children but also unexpected by the police. I think the operation today by the security forces - there was as much tension but there wasn't as much of the ugly scenes as we saw yesterday simply because the Protestant residents were pushed further away from the main road by the police and the Army.


Newshost:

We turn to our first question for Elaine Burns. Elaine, this question comes from Mike in England. He says: The problem here is that both sides are using the children as political pawns. The Protestants are obviously abusing them but the Catholics are just as guilty for using children for political point scoring. How do you feel as a parent who has witnessed this over the past couple of days?


Elaine Burns:

Absolute rubbish. I am not using my child and no other parent is using their child to score any political points with anybody. That school has been open for 32 years. I went to that school and for 32 years children have peacefully walked up and down that road with their parents to attend school. This is a point of a fundamental human right for young girls to go to school and I am not here to gain any political point scoring with anybody.


Newshost:

We have had a question from Tony Moretta in the UK who asks: I live in South East England and my daughter is four and started school today. She saw this incident on the news yesterday and asked her mother "Will that happen to me tomorrow?" What sort of message does this send to the children? How do you feel as a mother in that situation?


Elaine Burns:

I was absolutely horrified at what we witnessed yesterday. We were totally unprepared for the scenes and the abuse and the sectarian vile language that we witnessed as parents and young children. Now there is no justification for what went on up that road yesterday. As a parent I would just ask that the protesters step down. Let's get those children back to school in some sort of peace and normality and get the community leaders together, get the politicians together and get this matter sorted out.


Newshost:

Dennis, one of the major issues in this is the concerns of the Protestant community. One question has come from Anne Keane in the UK who asks: The violent people on both sides are beneath contempt. Hurling obscenities and bricks at four year-olds seems a new low. It is a pity that the good people from both communities have to live with these thugs. Do you believe it's a case that there are people on both sides who are not really helping the situation here and are possibly orchestrating it?


Dennis Murray:

This goes so far back - there has been 30 years of this and some people argue that it has been going on for centuries. But I think there is an important point here which is: if this peace process is about anything to the Nationalist peoples - to the Catholic population, it is about not being second-class citizens any longer. I think the feeling among some Catholics is - I am not going to use the backdoor again and they have a perfect right to use the front door.

Clearly there are people on both sides who may be trying to manipulate events. Earlier in the year there was some fierce disturbances which were clearly being manipulated - I think particularly on the Loyalist side - but you could argue on both sides. These are parents who want to take their children to the school they went to and in some cases where their grannies went to as well. The former First Minister here, the Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble, has said today that he thought what happened yesterday was totally unacceptable.


Newshost:

That brings us to another question on what the political parties have said about this. Ronan Molloy in Ireland asks: Why are the Unionist politicians so quiet on this issue. Do they condemn or condone the actions of the Loyalists yesterday?


Dennis Murray:

Well some of the Unionist politicians - the Loyalist politicians - have had difficulty explaining this away and they have been saying it's nothing to do with the children, it's to do with the parents. I think anyone who saw what happened yesterday - anyone who was even halfway neutral - would find great difficulty in believing that it wasn't about the children. But some Unionists have condemned it. One thing that all the parties keep saying is can we get the dialogue started again. Well it's very hard to have dialogue, I would have thought, after what happened yesterday.


Newshost:

Elaine, we had a question from Steve who is Irish and lives in the UK. He asks: I've become extremely cynical about the peace process in the last few months. Do you believe that there are substantial numbers of people on both sides who actually really want want to see this through now?


Elaine Burns:

There are genuine people on both sides that want to see this peace process work. Those children - 3 years of age to 11 year-old girls - they are our future. We bring those children up to respect all people in all societies and that's the next generation that's going to be running this country. That peace process has to work because they are the people that are going to be left if it doesn't work.


Newshost:

John Tofflemire, Japan (US National) he asks: this event in Northern Ireland is a new low for one of the world's most pointless conflicts. When will people stop saying, "What's wrong with them?" - as in the people on the other side - and have the courage to say "What's wrong with all of us?" Do you feel that is a fair comment?


Elaine Burns:

It's a fair comment. But I have already stated, there has been community leaders and the parents' committee have been entering into dialogue for nine weeks. We just need to sit down and get this thing sorted out - but please keep the children out of it.


Dennis Murray:

You could say that as easily of the Middle East or of the old South Africa or a whole load of conflicts around the world. Passions run very deep and they aren't going to disappear overnight.


Newshost:

Stephen in London asks: My remaining sympathies for the Loyalists in Northern Ireland evaporated because of these incidents. Do you think this has been a significant PR disaster? Do lots of people see it as a PR disaster for the people who have been behind these protests?


Dennis Murray:

Without doubt but these things come and go. I am not comparing like with like but to give an example of a historical precedent. When the IRA killed two children in Warrington some time ago, a lot of people in the United States who had sympathy for the Republican cause at that time were appalled and horrified. A lot of sympathisers for the Republican movement in the United States were appalled and horrified when they broke their ceasefire. But then it goes away if things change after that. But I am not surprised at that reaction after that Loyalist behaviour yesterday - it is inevitable.


Newshost:

Peter in Germany asks: After all this, all that's been achieved is a continuation of the sectarian hatred into yet another generation. Now Elaine, you grew up seeing a lot of sectarian scenes in your own youth. What can you do to help your children grow up without these kinds of situations developing?


Elaine Burns:

What I think all parents can do is to bring their children up and let them know that there is bad people out in society and that there has been a conflict here. But that there are good people on both sides and with the goodwill of politicians, community leaders, Church people - they need to get together and hopefully some type of resolution will come about and that our children will not have to suffer this any longer.


Newshost:

Dennis, you have been watching the peace process over the last seven years - or even longer - especially from the start of the ceasefire. Have you detected a change in mood in the last couple of years? Has there been a pulling away from the peace process with people becoming more and more cynical about it?


Dennis Murray:

This may sound a very superficial point. But it seems to me that with the ceasefires - when there is less and less violence, fewer bombs going off and fewer people being murdered - it is like having a medical test for something very serious and then you get the all clear and then you start to worry about your headache or your toothache, you then start to worry about the next thing.

Some people have argued that sectarianism is now much worse than it was during the years of the troubles. I think it is just more obvious - it was probably always there. At the same time outside of some of these flashpoint areas, if you came to Northern Ireland it wouldn't seem much different anywhere else in these islands. I think there has been a genuine sea-change with the peace process which I think most people still do want to work - nobody wants to go back to war.


Newshost:

John in Basingtoke in the UK asks: A recent survey indicated that the mainland UK population is now more or less indifferent to the sovereignty of Ulster. The Loyalist community should be very careful to retain the meagre outside support that it has, because once they lose the support of the mainland population, they will also lose the support of mainland politicians. Do you think there is any truth in that?


Dennis Murray:

I think there was a lot of sympathy at the start of the troubles in Britain for Loyalists because they waved the Union flag. I am not sure that is still true because they have seen the Union flag waved as a political emblem.

The thing I find about England in particular is that there is a huge residue of goodwill for this peace process - people want it to work. There may well be a grain of truth in that. But I would say one thing - do not mess with people's aspirations. People in the Republic want peace - they may not want a united Ireland tomorrow but if you asked them, is it your aspiration to have a united Ireland - by God it is. If you take people in England for instance and say whether the Loyalists, the Protestants, in Northern Ireland want it or not, we are going to force a united Ireland on them - you would find that opinion changing again.


Newshost:

Your aspiration Elaine and all the 200 or so other parents here is to get your children into school. Are you going to continue walking up the Ardoyne Road toward the Holy Cross School or are you going to try and take an alternative route?


Elaine Burns:

I am going to just assess the situation every morning when I come up. I will make my way up the Ardoyne Road but I will assess the situation and if I feel that the situation goes back to anything the way it was yesterday, I will certainly not be subjecting my child to that.


Newshost:

Thanks to both of you for taking part in this interview today.

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