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Saturday, 24 November, 2001, 18:36 GMT
Twelve depressing weeks
Protestant residents clash with riot police
The world was appalled by the scenes
Kevin Connolly

For 12 depressing weeks the dispute on the Ardoyne Road outside the Holy Cross school has disturbed, dismayed and angered people across North Belfast, throughout Northern Ireland and in the wider world beyond.

The hate-filled aggression the loyalist protesters showed to the primary school girls and their families; the stubbornness of parents who would expose their terrified children to the ordeal of the daily protests rather than use a more roundabout route to school - both seemed equally inexplicable to those on the outside looking in.

Particular shock came when loyalist paramilitaries threw a blast bomb at the lines of riot police at soldiers forming a corridor through which the girls and their families were being escorted in the first week of the dispute.

Distraught Allison Lea, aged five, being escorted to school
The pictures of distraught children dismayed many

This far into the peace process, the news simply wasn't meant to look and feel like this.

Loyalists in general are hostile and aggressive to journalists on the ground, believing that the media in general are sympathetic to nationalists and republicans rather than to them.

But the residents of Glenbryn did not anticipate the global attention - and revulsion - that their protest would attract.

There has been a sense for some weeks that they have been looking for a way out, and one interesting feature of the deal which has been emerging this weekend is the extent to which it concentrates on public security measures like CCTV cameras, speed ramps and police patrolling.

That will allow the protestants who live in a handful of streets on either side of one stretch of the Ardoyne Road alongside a much larger Catholic community to argue that they are suspending their protest because their concerns about their own safety are being addressed.

Whatever the wider world thinks, loyalists in North Belfast enclaves like Glenbryn see themselves as victims of sectarian violence these days.

17 'peace lines'

The area has a long history of conflict between Catholic and Protestant which stretches back into the 19th century.

Little girl with riot police
The aggression and stubbornness involved seemed inexplicable to outsiders

More than 20% of all the victims of the modern troubles were killed in North Belfast, and 13 of the city's 17 peace lines - high walls or fences designed to keep rival communities apart - were erected there.

Most of the violence in modern Belfast is in the north of the city because it remains a patchwork of rival communities side by side - a place where neighbours are often also enemies.

In recent times, Protestant residents have been feeling increasingly vulnerable and isolated because the demographic balance has been rapidly shifting against them.

At the start of the troubles in the late 1960s, they felt they had the upper hand politically and numerically.

Now, they feel, they have lost out on both counts. They see the peace process as a series of concessions to their nationalist and republican enemies, and they are increasingly outnumbered.

Young Catholic girl crying, being carried to school
What sort of place will the children want North Belfast to be in future?

This is largely because Belfast protestants have tended to migrate to towns outside the city, while the Catholic population has stayed put.

So while it is certainly possible that this is the end, for the time being of the Holy Cross dispute, the tensions and hatreds which made it possible are still there below the surface, and will certainly bubble up again at some point in the future.

The cost of it all, in terms of the security bill and the damage to the image of Northern Ireland in the eyes of foreign investors, has been immense.

But it will be years before we know the extent of the greatest cost of all - in the mental and emotional scars the little girls who have lived through it all will bear.

What sort of place will they - and the children on the loyalist side - want North Belfast to be when they are older?

BBC NIs Noreen Erskine reports:
"The suspension of the protest has been widely welcomed by Catholic parents"
See also:

24 Nov 01 | Northern Ireland
Suspension of school protest welcomed
24 Nov 01 | Northern Ireland
Loyalists suspend school protest
20 Nov 01 | Northern Ireland
'Helpful' meeting over Holy Cross
14 Nov 01 | Northern Ireland
Ministers to tackle Holy Cross dispute
09 Nov 01 | Northern Ireland
Protesters resume school dispute
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