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FIRST DAY AT SCHOOL ULSTER STYLE; Clashes as pupils' route is blocked.

Byline: TED OLIVER

CHILDREN as young as four were forced to walk a corridor of hate on their first day at school in north Belfast.

Protestants clashed with riot police and heavily armed soldiers yesterday as they tried to block the path of Catholic children.

Terrified little girls walked in tears as a crowd of 200 jeered. They had to dodge spit, stones and the foulest of abuse.

The shortest route from the staunchly Republican Ardoyne area to Holy Cross Girls Primary, runs through a Protestant enclave.

Loyalists, who claim their own people have been unable to walk through Catholic areas to the library or collect their pension, were determined to stop the school procession on the first day of the new term.

They were held back by troops and RUC officers, who used riot shields to form a pathway for the youngsters and their parents.

At one stage, police drew batons to move missile-throwing protesters.

Even after the 60 or so children had managed to get through the doors, a hail of bottles, fireworks and stones rained down on the school and the children were forced to dive for cover under desks.

Crying

There were no injuries, but junior Northern Ireland Office minister Des Browne admitted: "My worst fears are being realised."

Emma McGann, four, was one of the children starting school.

She said: "It was really really scary. I thought they were going to hurt me and my mummy.

"I think I might be too scared to go back if it's like this all the time."

Mum Isabelle said: "When I took her down last week to get her uniform, she started crying in the shop saying she was so scared that she wanted to go to another school.

"She cried all summer because she was afraid of what was going to happen and it was even worse than she had feared."

Father Aidan Troy, chairman of the board of governors of Holy Cross, said: "I was outside the school at 7am and I couldn't believe the torrent of abuse that was directed at me. And it was even worse when the children were being brought in.

"An experience like that is bound to leave scars that will last for ever."

He asked parents to use a longer alternative route through Catholic areas until the issues have been resolved.

The parents were told to bring their children through just after 9am, after the road had been cleared of uprooted wooden fencing.

But the scurrying procession came within a few feet of protesters. A few parents retaliated with provocative signs. Most just tried to rush the children through the "tunnel".

RUC Assistant Chief Constable for Belfast, Alan McQuillan, vowed his officers would be there every day, if necessary, to ensure the pupils got to class.

Branding the actions of the Glenbryn loyalist protesters "disgraceful", he added: "All we can do is hold the line."

Loyalists claim they have been the target of sectarian attacks.

At the end of last summer term, they decided that until their grievances were sorted, the Catholic kids would not be allowed to walk Protestant streets to their school.

Three months of talks fell on stony ground. The summer saw clashes and a growing number of pipe bomb attacks, mostly on Catholic homes.

Jim Potts, of the Protestant Glenbryn Residents, said: "This is a loyalist area. Why was a Catholic school ever built here in the first place?

"What the British government should do is build them a new school in the Catholic part of Ardoyne. That would solve this problem."

The police operation was heavily criticised by both sides.

Belfast Lord Mayor Jim Rodgers claimed: "I have been abused this morning by some police officers and I think my position as first citizen has been badly let down."

North Belfast MP, Nigel Dodds of Reverend Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, met with RUC Chief Constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan.

He said: "We voiced the anger and frustration that is felt by many people at the heavy-handed tactics."

Other loyalists claimed that prominent republicans had been close to the school, even though they had no children going there.

Billy Hutchison, of the Loyalist Progressive Unionists, said: "When the RUC provide a guard of honour for well-known Provisionals, then it's a sad day."

The nationalists said police should have been there in greater numbers.

Northern Ireland Minister Des Browne appealed for the communities to resolve the difficulties.

He added: "Peaceful and lawful protest is one thing, but there is no justification in this day and age for blocking the road and stopping children getting to school."

As school finished for the first day, the children were taken through a rear exit and down a longer route along the main Crumlin Road, avoiding the loyalist streets.

There were further clashes between police and loyalists later.

One woman was taken to hospital, allegedly hurt by a police baton.

Groups of nationalist youths fought with police, who stopped them attacking buses carrying Protestant schoolchildren past the fringe of the Catholic area.

A strong force of police and army remained on the streets last night.
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Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Sep 4, 2001
Words:854
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