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Q&A: Belfast school violence

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Scenes of schoolgirls as young as four running a gauntlet of hatred outside the Holy Cross primary school in north Belfast have brought condemnation and outrage.

Q: Why has a school for girls aged four to 11 become such a flashpoint?

A. The Ardoyne is a tough working class area of North Belfast which once was home to a mixed Catholic and Protestant population. But over the 30 years of the troubles in Northern Ireland, partly because of safety and partly because of attacks on homes, the two communities have divided into sectarian enclaves.

In this process the Holy Cross school, a school for Catholics, found itself in the wrong place. Isolated in a Protestant area, Glenbryn, it became a symbol to both factions and a focal point of tension.

Catholic parents taking their children to school were accused of flaunting republican symbols and taunting local Protestants.

Making matters worse, the Protestant areas of the otherwise overwhelmingly Catholic Ardoyne have long been seen as a base for loyalist paramilitaries with a reputation for violence.

The Red Hand Defenders, who admit being behind much of the current violence, are a loyalist group formed from members of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) opposed to the Good Friday Agreement.

Q: What has provoked the current violence?

A. Republicans were accused of deliberately knocking over two youths on ladders who were putting UFF flags on lampposts outside the Holy Cross school in advance of an Orange Order (Protestant) march in June.

In return, loyalists blockaded the entrance to the school, preventing Catholic children from entering, and forcing terrified parents and children to retreat into the playground.

This was followed by several nights of heavy rioting and some of the worst violence in Northern Ireland this year with 60 policemen injured.

Community leaders failed to agree on moves to defuse the tension. The dispute was temporarily abated by the summer holidays, but the violence began again this week when the new school year began.

Q: How can the Protestants of the Ardoyne justify the abusing of small children?

Injured policeman
A policeman was injured in a pipe bomb attack outside the school on Tuesday  

A. Protestants, who are a minority in the Ardoyne, say their action is in retaliation for attacks on their homes by Catholics.

They claim republicans are trying to force them out of the area and are acting to defend their area against Catholic encroachment.

They also claim the children are being used as a cover for members of paramilitary republican groups to enter Protestant areas and to abuse and threaten them.

Many are unrepentant about the violence, openly supporting the UFF and saying they need the paramilitaries for protection.

They are critical of the police who they accuse of being heavy handed and not doing enough to protect them.

Q: Why are the Catholics putting their children through this?

A. The parents were told by the governors and police to take their children to school by a longer route through nationalist streets and enter the building through a rear entrance.

They say it is their fundamental right to take their children to school by the most direct route.

They say going in through the back door would be handing victory to the loyalists and are prepared to take the risks involved to take a stand on a matter of principle.

Q: What is the police's position?

A. Police say they will uphold the rights of pupils to get to school.

Royal Ulster Constabulary chief constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan has condemned Ardoyne rioters as "murderous scum" and blamed loyalist paramilitaries for orchestrating the clashes.

Alan McQuillan, the RUC Assistant Chief Constable for Belfast, says it is a disgrace that they had to try to build a safe corridor to get children through. He warned the protesters that his officers would be there every day to ensure the pupils got to class.

Q: How can the Ardoyne violence be ended?

A. This is essentially a territorial dispute made worst by the proximity of two hardline communities. In the reverse of recent disputes about Orange marches it is about the right of Catholics to walk on what Protestants consider "their" streets.

In the long term former first minister David Trimble has called for a Northern Ireland Assembly inquiry into social deprivation and housing grievances in north Belfast.

But Northern Ireland experts say the best hope for the immediate future is mediation between the two communities, an end to paramilitary violence and progress in the deadlocked Northern Ireland peace process.

• Belfast appeal after school clash
September 3, 2001
• Gunfire exchanged in Belfast
July 29, 2001
• Appeals for calm in Belfast
July 28, 2001
• Leaders finalise N. Irish plan
July 27, 2001

• Good Friday Agreement
• Northern Ireland Assembly
• Northern Ireland Office
• British Prime Minister
• Irish Prime Minister

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