I can hardly bring myself to write about the events in North Belfast over the past three days. I feel a mixture of shame, anger, embarrassment and sorrow at the scenes that have appeared on newspaper front pages and television screens all over the world. Republicans can scarcely conceal their glee at the propaganda own goals scored by the demonstrators who hurled abuse at children on their way to school. God help us all that we have come to this — that children are targets for abuse and blast bombs and that the same children can be cynically used by some of their own parents to wrong-foot the less media savvy Prods who live in the Glenbryn/Upper Ardoyne area.
I want to make it clear that the issues in the area go back a lot deeper than the superficial issue of wee children going to their school. It certainly does not help to come out with hyperbole about Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, Alabama in the 1960s and Jews in Nazi Germany. We have heard all this kind of stuff from newspaper reporters and Sinn Féin spokespersons over the last few days. I would have thought that reporters had a duty to understand what’s been going on in the area and why people have been driven to act in a way which cannot be in their own long term interest.
This dispute began on June 19th when a group of Republicans, who claimed to be collecting children from school, attacked a couple of Protestant youths who were erecting loyalist flags on lamp posts close to the Holy Cross Primary School. One young man was knocked off a ladder and attacked with a screwdriver. A convoy of cars packed with Republicans armed with baseball bats and hurley sticks turned up and laid into locals. A fight broke out with parents picking up children from both Holy Cross and Wheatfield Primary School — a Protestant school across the street — getting involved. Hysterical children had to be taken back into both schools for safety after the fighting broke out.
It is a fact that the Upper Ardoyne enclave has been under strong Republican pressure all year. Attacks on local homes are well-documented and a local man was murdered by what the police called a ‘Republican paramilitary group’ some months ago. The RUC declined to speculate exactly which Republican death squad carried out this killing. Local people believe it to be the mainstream PIRA. Since then local Protestants have been harassed to the extent that they can no longer use the local bus stop, the shops, post office or library at the bottom of the Ardoyne Road without fearing for their safety.
At the same time, these folk resent the fact that they cannot leave their houses during the school run each morning and afternoon as they have been subjected to sectarian taunts and some have had their cars damaged, and been threatened with being burnt out of their homes. Others have been assaulted and had their cars stoned and bricked simply because they were heading up the Ardoyne Road past the shops. This happened recently to a friend of mine who was offered a house in Glenbryn Park. The rent was very cheap — only £30.00 a week! He’s from the country and his fiancee is English so they didn’t know any better! I advised them to find somewhere else, if they want to live in Belfast, or if they did decide to move in to take an alternative route into the estate via Hesketh Road. They decided not to take the house after their car was bricked on the way to view it.
All this is to explain to who cannot understand what has brought this raw nerve to the surface. It certainly justifies peaceful protest against people who come into their area every day but have no respect for the rights of local residents — but not the abuse and violence and blast bombs that we have seen this week. There are some good community activists up there who are trying hard to bring things to a peaceful conclusion. Mark Coulter has been doing sterling work in the last three months and has tried hard to get a dialogue going with Catholic Ardoyne. Instead the tension was ratcheted up all through July and August with attacks on Protestant residents and homes. Mr Coulter’s own house was attacked on August 22nd as he was involved in talks with the Republican ‘Right to Education’ group.
I don’t know where this is all going to end. It is profoundly depressing. For me as a Protestant who wants to reach out beyond the religious divide, it seems to set back our work years as people become more entrenched in their sectarian bunkers. Part of me wants to give the people who appeared on TV shouting abuse a good shake, while another part of me understands the frustration that drove them to it. One thing is sure, self-righteous demonisation of the Glenbryn residents is only likely to drive them into more extreme positions on the principle that you might as well be hanged for a sheep than a lamb. In the meantime, it would help to defuse the present situation if all the Holy Cross youngsters went to and from the school by the Crumlin Road entrance. Perhaps then proper dialogue can begin and the Prod mad bombers and professional Republican shit stirrers can be kicked into the dustbin of history where they belong.
David Kerr, Belfast, 4 September 2001
David is Webmaster at Ulster Nation