A young girl watches a loyalist marching band parade through west Belfast on Saturday.
Belfast, Northern Ireland CNN  — 

Niamh Burns is organizing a special 20-year reunion for her schoolmates this year. But while the accomplishments of the “Courageous Classes of 2001” are worth celebrating, the date they are commemorating is not.

Over the course of 12 weeks in 2001, Burns and the other pupils at north Belfast’s Holy Cross Girls’ primary were subjected to a barrage of abuse from a group of loyalist Protestants blocking their path to the school gate.

The unrest, reported on globally at the time, began during the last week of the summer term, before violence exploded on the children’s return to school in the fall. An angry mob threw urine-filled balloons and, eventually, a pipe bomb as children – some as young as five – ran the gauntlet each day to get to class.

It had been three years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the landmark peace accord also called the Belfast Agreement that marked an end to the decades-long conflict known as the Troubles, but sectarian tensions were still rife in Belfast’s Ardoyne neighborhood.

Two decades later, violence is still never far from the surface in Northern Ireland, with the pain of the past still driving discontent.

As July 12 nears, and loyalist Protestants prepare the annual celebration of King William of Orange’s victory over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 with marches and bonfires, there are fears that unrest could spill onto the streets, as they did briefly earlier this year.

The catalyst for the chaos at Holy Cross in 2001 is still disputed: Protestant loyalists, who identify as British, say Catholic nationalists, who identify as Irish, had knocked a loyalist off a ladder as he was hanging a flag ahead of the traditional loyalist marching season. Catholic nationalists say it was an attack on their presence in a majority-Protestant area.

But underscoring all of this was a bigger issue: While the Catholic Ardoyne was thriving, a Protestant exodus from the neighboring enclave of Glenbryn was intensifying, with claims of intimidation leveled at nationalist republicans.

The Holy Cross dispute showed just how fragile the new peace was. Its continuing impact has added to a collective trauma that serves as a unifying thread across Northern Ireland.

The Holy Cross Girls Primary School, in north Belfast's Ardoyne area, became a flashpoint for sectarian violence in 2001.

While others have struggled to reconcile the past, years of therapy and cross-community engagement have helped some of the Holy Cross schoolgirls to move forward.

“You don’t ever really overcome it, you just learn how to live with it,” explains Burns, who was five when the protests erupted outside her school.

She and her older sister, a fellow pupil, experienced night terrors as a result of the violence, but despite everything, Burns says the school “was a safe place” – life went on as normal once they were inside.

Burns, a cross-community worker, says her experiences at Holy Cross have shaped her life since – in a largely positive way: “I’ve carried my experience with me the whole time, which has allowed me to do the work that I am doing now.”

For Gemma McCabe, another former Holy Cross student, memories of the dispute are painful, but she says the incident hasn’t defined her outlook.

“I was brought up not to let that get at you or … bring you down,” she tells CNN. “I know it was a traumatic time, but to me it was only a short time of my life.”

Saying this, McCabe looks to her father Gerry, who lived through the worst of the Troubles, when sectarian violence between the late 1960s and 1998 left more than 3,500 people dead.

Gerry McCabe says he and his wife tried to shield their daughter, who was eight at the time, from what was going on. “Truth be told we probably would have simplified it. Beyond simplifying, we would have … put frills on it.”

Gerry McCabe (right), a former Sinn Féin councilor for Ardoyne, says those still looking to stir up chaos are living in the past. For his daughter, Gemma (left, who did not wish to have her face shown), the past is the past.

McCabe understands why her parents tried to protect her. “As you get older, you learn the politics of Northern Ireland and … you would never have understood that as a kid anyway. So what way do you tell a kid? You don’t,” she says.

Burns says that her parents shunned the “us and them” narrative, and encouraged her to engage in opportunities that would benefit her community as a whole. “Yes, ok we live in an area that seems to be deprived, that seems to be on the news for bad stuff – but realistically there are a lot of good people and opportunities and all you need to do is get involved,” she says.

After intense negotiations across sectarian, international and religious lines – which Gerry McCabe took part in, as the head of a parents’ group – the protesters agreed to suspend their campaign in November 2001.

For him, what happened at Holy Cross was an abomination, but it followed a familiar trajectory: “It’s two steps forward, 10 steps back,” he explains. “And that’s the type of society that we have been living in for all my life.”

In the 20 years since the Holy Cross dispute, the social fabric of Northern Ireland has changed drastically, with a growing section of society abandoning the traditional markers of British or Irish, Protestant or Catholic identity.

Despite that change, the same sections of society continue to feel left behind.

Deprivation, poor educational outcomes and a lack of jobs have long plagued working-class communities across Northern Ireland.

Youths gather near a "peace wall" in north Belfast's Alexandra Park. The peace wall, also referred to as a "separation barrier," is one of dozens of structures erected to separate predominantly republican and nationalist neighborhoods.

But for loyalists, that inter-generational sense of hopelessness has been compounded by a series of external factors that some fear could signal a splintering of the United Kingdom itself.

Some of that insecurity has arisen as a result of Brexit.

The Northern Ireland protocol, part of the deal which saw the UK leave the European Union, creates a customs border in the Irish Sea in order to avoid having one on the island of Ireland.

The problem for unionists is that it keeps Northern Ireland in the same customs union as the Republic of Ireland (an EU member state) while adding checks on goods from the rest of the UK, of which Northern Ireland remains a part. They feel betrayed by the agreement and the customs alignment to the Republic of Ireland, saying the protocol puts them in different standing to England, Wales and Scotland – the other three nations that make up the kingdom.

Adding to unionists’ concerns is the growing popularity of Sinn Féin. This all-Ireland nationalist republican party, whose ambition is to see a united Ireland, is projected to become the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time in its history next year, while it has been gaining ground over the border in the Republic of Ireland.

A mural of the republican icon and hunger striker Bobby Sands is painted on the Sinn Féin office in west Belfast.

Meanwhile, the unionist political landscape is riven with fractures. The most powerful unionist party, the DUP, has had three leaders in the past three months, with support for the party declining dramatically.

Changing demographics also play a part: While Protestants once outnumbered Catholics two to one in Northern Ireland, the 2021 census is tipped to show a Catholic majority in the region for the first time, when it is released next year.

“All of these things … conspire to make people very fearful, because they assume maybe this is the endgame for the union,” says Gareth Mulvenna, an expert on the Troubles and loyalist paramilitaries.

“Loyalism and unionism are always reactive and on the defensive mode, but now, unionism is having to react to different forces outside of its control,” he says.

This spring, as Northern Ireland prepared to celebrate the centenary of its foundation, those tensions reached fever pitch. Rioters in primarily loyalist neighborhoods took to the streets, hurling petrol bombs at police officers and setting a bus alight, propelling the region, once again, back into the international headlines.

When loyalist and nationalist communities clashed along a so-called peace line – a gated wall separating unionist and nationalist areas – the region braced for sustained violence. But that disorder did not come.

Now, as the climax of the loyalist marching season draws near, those closest to Northern Ireland’s legacy of violence are once again appealing for calm.

A girl peruses an array of marching season paraphernalia on the Shankill Road in west Belfast.

Billy Hutchinson, a Progressive Unionist Party councillor, says there is no appetite for a return to the dark days of the past. Hutchinson is a former loyalist paramilitary who spent 15 years in prison for his involvement in the sectarian murders of two Catholic half-brothers during the Troubles.

He doesn’t think Northern Ireland’s society has slipped back to where it was during the Holy Cross protests – but warns that it “doesn’t take much to light the fire.”

Hutchinson was one of those who tried to diffuse tensions at Holy Cross in 2001. In his 2020 book about his life, he wrote that while the loyalists’ grievances were legitimate, they were also “totally counterproductive – and portrayed loyalism as backward and nasty in the eyes of the world.”

But the root of those grievances has not changed, he said – many loyalists feel “under siege” today. Young loyalists in particular have “no stake in society,” he said.

“What we need to do is to build confidence in this community that they’re still British. And they will be until, you know, if some sort of poll says we aren’t,” he said.

Progressive Unionist Party leader Billy Hutchinson: "I've seen the trouble starting when we didn't have troubles. They start for a reason, and the same thing can happen again. So people need to be very careful."

Hutchinson is talking about a potential border poll on Irish unification – something he sees as a bigger threat to unionism than the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

A clause in the 1998 peace accords says a referendum on Irish unification should be held if it appears likely that the majority of voters would back it. Consent for a united Ireland would need to be given concurrently in both Northern Ireland and in the Republic, according to the Good Friday Agreement.

While Hutchinson doesn’t believe that a united Ireland is inevitable he, like many unionists who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, feels it is an attack on his identity. “There’s a cultural war on,” he says.

Conor Maskey, a Sinn Fein councillor for Belfast’s Castle electoral area, one of the most mixed parts of the city, understands that unionists find talk of a border poll “unsettling,” but feels it’s his responsibility to explain “how that’s not going to move us in a negative direction, but a positive one.”

Plus, it’s “the unionists’ responsibility to convince someone like me that we shouldn’t have a border poll,” he said, adding that if one were held and the vote favored a united Ireland, unionists’ rights would be protected.

But in these uncertain times, many loyalists feel those rights are already being eroded, pointing to the removal of a number of traditional bonfires erected ahead of July 12.

A young loyalist sporting red, white, and blue braids  -- the colors of the Union Flag -- attends a parade on the Shankill Road in west Belfast.

Emma Shaw, a loyalist activist and MA student in educational policy, says that part of the problem stems from general perceptions about loyalism. “The word loyalist is always portrayed in a really negative light,” she says. “And that’s really frustrating for me, because it’s always like, ‘loyalists, or knuckle draggers, they’re in the past, they don’t want society to move forward.’ And that actually couldn’t be further from the truth, especially in regards to the women.”

Shaw says the community has worked with local authorities for years to ensure the safety of the bonfires, including on how to make them more environmentally friendly.

“But as council changes from a unionist, to a more nationalist focus, it just feels like we’re being told to give, give, give, and we don’t really have anything left to give,” she said.

Loyalist Emma Shaw, in east Belfast's CS Lewis Square.

While Shaw says bonfires are an integral part of her community’s culture, she knows they can also be used as a form of political protest, with the burning of election posters, effigies and flags a common sight.

Loyalist activist Joel Keys said he doesn’t like to see posters and flags burn on the fires – but adds that if there was one image he would place there it would be that of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, “because he’s betrayed us.”

Keys understands that his political opponents want to unite Ireland: “I know they’re (Sinn Féin) not in it for my interests, they’re very open about that fact and about what they care about.”

“But Boris pretends to be on our side, he pretends to be one of our friends. And you can only be betrayed by people who claim to be your friends; you can only be betrayed by people who claim to be on your side,” he says.

The 19-year-old feels his community is under threat. He’s made it his mission to encourage more young loyalists to get involved in politics, explaining to them that “representatives are people that work for you.”

“I think lots of people need to get it into their heads that change is not incredibly far out of their reach,” he says.

“Boris pretends to be on our side… you can only be betrayed by people who claim to be on your side.”

Joel Keys, loyalist activist

But that change might not necessarily be along traditional orange (Protestant) and green (Catholic) demarcations.

A bonfire in central Belfast is prepared ahead of the Eleventh Night, a loyalist tradition to commemorate the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II in 1690. The bonfires are upheld as an important part of unionist culture, but are viewed as provocative to some members of the Catholic nationalist community.

In a recent Northern Ireland Youth Forum (NIYF) report, mental health was the biggest concern for young people, rather than any other social or political issue.

When it came to questions of religion, culture and identity, nearly half (45%) of those asked identified as Northern Irish; an overwhelming majority (82%) of respondents said an individual’s religious background had no impact on how they would feel about them.

NIYF youth workers Martin Kelly and Lauren McAreavey say the “us and them” narrative still exists in some communities, but that young people are moving away from it, breaking down barriers to work closely together on the issues that are right on their doorstep.

“There’s too many people that don’t want times to go back to the way that it was than people who want it to,” former Holy Cross student McCabe, whose partner is Protestant, said.

For her, the past is simple: “You remember it – but you move on.”