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Wednesday, 5 September, 2001, 13:01 GMT 14:01 UK
Eyewitness: Bomb blast at school
A parent runs from the blast
Panic and confusion: Parents run from the blast
By BBC News Online's Dominic Casciani in Belfast

This should be like any other school run in the world, children walking with their mothers to the gates, kissing them good bye as they excitedly go to class.

But what began as a desperately complicated row over access to Ardoyne's Catholic Holy Cross School in June, took a step over the edge today when loyalist paramilitaries terrorised little girls as young as four with a bomb attack.

I am totally ashamed to call myself a loyalist today

Billy Hutchinson, PUP
Nobody knew this would happen, other than those who had planned at some point in the last 24 hours to carry out the attack.

In fact, despite the fear, more parents turned out for the walk to school this morning - at least 100 of them - because they believed that the situation may finally be becoming less threatening.

The security presence this morning was just as heavy as previous days and during the night loyalist youths had rioted after spending the day hemmed in by scores of police officers and soldier.

Just before 9am they began the walk with their chair of school governors, Father Aidan Troy, at their head.

Loyalists waiting

Half way up the road, a crowd of loyalist youths numbering at least 30 stood in Glenbryn Parade, a side road leading up to the security corridor, penned in by the RUC.

John White of the loyalist Ulster Democratic Party, which has close connections to the paramilitary group the UDA, was watching from a house to the side of the crowd.

Parents run from the attack
Seeking cover: Parents could not see the blast
As the school party approached the burnt out wrecks of cars stolen the night before, jeers came from the crowd of men, followed by stones and small pieces of paving.

Most hit the Land Rovers and bounced back. But at least two flew over into the parents and children.

Within seconds, the RUC officers charged the men. Whether the device was thrown at the parents or dropped at the RUC's feet is academic.

But suddenly there was a puff of smoke and a loud deep crack of an explosion in the side road.

One RUC officer fell to the ground as screams and cries went up among the parents.

Three other officers suffered injuries and a police dog went down too. Within the security corridor, most of the parents had not seen the blastbomb - but they had certainly heard it.

A child is swept up by her mother in Ardoyne
Children panicked, running backwards and forwards
The scene was total chaos. Children ran in all directions. One fell over and appeared to be trying to get underneath a Land Rover.

Father Troy, confused and bewildered, vainly held up his arms, attempting to calm everyone down, urging the parents not to run, not to panic.

But the first group of parents became separated from the rest and ran to the school gates.

The rest were kept back by the RUC but suddenly burst forward, children in their arms.

Nobody knew what was happening, nobody knew if they were still in danger.

Nobody knew if a child had been injured.

Unbeknown to those witnessing the scene, the loyalist Red Hand Defenders, a cover name used by the UDA, was already claiming responsibility in calls to newsrooms.

At the school itself there was absolute incredulity at what had happened. Children were weeping uncontrollably; one mother suffered a panic attack and sat shaking and murmuring to herself.

Ann Tanney, the school principal, just appeared utterly downcast.

Her 30 years of working in a desperately divided community, trying with her staff and colleagues from the neighbouring Protestant school to build bridges, had disintegrated before the eyes of the world in just three days.

'Ashamed to be a loyalist'

All the way through this dispute, loyalist community leaders in Protestant north Belfast insist that nobody is listening to the fact that their people are being attacked and intimidated by Ardoyne republicans.

They're just children, that's all. These people up there were calling us a disgrace yesterday. The world should see who really is the disgrace

Ardoyne mother
John White said that it was disgraceful that any situation should come to this and that missiles should be thrown - but he criticised the RUC for charging the protesters.

North Belfast Democratic Unionist MP, Nigel Dodds, witnessed the chaos and condemned what he called sinister elements who had entered the community.

But more significantly, Billy Hutchinson, the loyalist Progressive Unionist assembly member, said that he was "totally ashamed to call myself a loyalist".

The injured dog
Injuries: Four policemen and an RUC dog
"We have got people coming into this community who describe themselves as loyalists and claim to represent this community.

"It is a disgrace. You [the media] should be finding out who these people are and shaming them."

Mr Hutchinson declined to name names, saying: "You all know that my hands are tied."

With the loyalists responsible scattered into the estate's backstreets, the RUC escorted the parents from the school and they were welcomed back to their own area by a large crowd of their own community.

There, many of the mothers broke down on the shoulders of fathers who were inconsolable at the fact that they had not joined them this morning.

Philomena Flood, one of the mothers who had been closest to the explosion, found the words hard to find.

"We're just in the middle of something here that we can't understand.

"They're just children, that's all. These people up there were calling us a disgrace yesterday. The world should see who really is the disgrace."

Cardinal Cahal Daly once said: "Whataboutery is the commonest form of moral evasion in Ireland today", referring to how both communities use the terrible burden of past events to lay obstacles in the way of peace.

Today, another incomprehensible event was added to that long list of whataboutery - an event that 100 small children will never, ever forget.



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