An Phoblacht/Republican News · Thursday 24 October 2002

Phoblacht/Republican News]

Returning to Holy Cross

One year after the traumatic sectarian siege of Holy Cross girls' primary school, the right to walk to school free from fear of sectarian harassment remains the 'gift' of loyalism to exercise as and when they see fit, argues LAURA FRIEL. She says the culpability of state agencies in this and more recent sectarian persecution demands urgent address

For the children and parents of Holy Cross, the Catholic girls' primary school in North Belfast that became the focus of loyalist intimidation a year ago, this month marks a significant developments. This development has implications not only for the children and parents of Holy Cross but for all nationalist communities throughout the north. A report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Education is set to consider the response of state agencies in dealing with the loyalist blockade that prevented children, some as young as four years of age, walking to and from school unmolested.

As we have witnessed with the ongoing loyalist siege of Short Strand, the response, or more often the lack of it by state agencies, particularly those tasked with protecting the community, has a crucial impact on the immediate course of events and on the willingness of loyalists to resume a sectarian campaign elsewhere.

Last month, the pupils of Holy Cross returned to school after the long summer break. Anyone who witnessed, either directly or even through television film footage, the appalling scenes of Glenbryn loyalists attacking terrified schoolgirls as they made their way to Holy Cross last year, will understand the trepidation with which many parents and pupils viewed the new term.

Worse still, this term began against a background of loyalist intimidation identical to that which had preceded the blockade this time last year. Catholic homes in Ardoyne continue to be subject to sectarian attacks.

In other words, many of the same loyalists from Glenbryn who last summer had decreed that Catholic school girls were not entitled to walk to school, were this summer involved in ensuring that they were not allowed to sleep peacefully in the beds at night, or play in their own back gardens free from fear of sectarian attack.

Most victims of violent crime experience trauma when revisiting the scene of their ordeal. During the loyalist blockade, schoolgirls and their parents were attacked with bricks, bottles, urine-filled balloons and blast bombs. They were also subjected to obscene, racist and sectarian verbal abuse and threats.

If this had happened once it would have been an outrage, but it was an ordeal that continued over days and weeks. Of course, the duration as well as the nature of the loyalist attack is a significant factor in the way we can evaluate events at Holy Cross and its aftermath.

This, together with the manner in which the blockade of Holy Cross was managed by various state agencies and the nature of its resolution, all informs the trauma of return as the children and their parents experience it in that short walk along Ardoyne Road.

Denying recognition to victims

When Michael Lapsley, an ANC pastor working with victims in the aftermath of Apartheid South Africa, visited Belfast, he described his own journey from victim to survivor after suffering horrendous injuries during a parcel bomb attack at his home.

The crucial factor in his recovery from trauma, the pastor had said, was the immediate and universal recognition that he had been wronged. But, as Michael Lapsley pointed out, that recognition is often denied to victims, particularly to those who have suffered at the hands of state, or pro-state forces.

The tragedy of Holy Cross lies in the fact that children, their families and the community to which they belong were not only denied proper protection, their systematic persecution at the hands of loyalist paramilitaries was also denied universal recognition.

This not only has immediate consequences for the ability of the pupils and parents to fully recover but also for the confidence of the entire nationalist community and its relationship with the northern state.

During the Holy Cross blockade the primary agency was the RUC, later PSNI, assisted by the British Army. The loyalist blockade of Holy Cross School began one sunny morning in June 2001 when parents and children arrived to walk the short distance along Ardoyne Avenue to find their way barred by the RUC.

In a response reminiscent of RUC tactics during Drumcree road blockades, at the behest of a handful of loyalist protestors the RUC cordoned off the area. The children were unable to go to school. The beginning of the blockade coincided with the ending of the school term and the eight-week summer break.

But by September the only change lay in the tactics of the RUC, soon to become the PSNI. Under pressure not to appear to act as loyalist blockaders by proxy, the RUC decided to grant passage to parents and pupils walking to Holy Cross but remained ambiguous about guaranteeing safety.

Rather than hold the loyalist blockaders at a distance, the RUC allowed the protestors literally within spitting distance of the children and parents. This decision was probably the single most important factor in what was to follow.

Soon, hundreds of heavily armed, mostly masked, RUC officers in full riot gear were joined by British soldiers carrying semi-automatic rifles to line the route. But instead of ensuring that pupils and their parents could walk to school in assured safety, the Crown forces merely 'stagemanaged' the loyalist protest.

For nationalists, given the history of the state and the role of state forces, relying on Crown force 'protection' can afford little in the way of reassurance. Holy Cross pupils and parents faced a double burden of walking the gauntlet of loyalist hatred through a corridor of British military hardware.

To add to the anguish, the RUC/PSNI and British Army decided that only parents and pupils would be allowed to walk the 30-yard stretch along the Ardoyne Road. The ordeal was being faced by some of the most vulnerable and defenceless members of the nationalist community, and they were forced into facing it alone.

It was never suggested that loyalist blockaders should scale down their presence. The onus was on the families and community of Holy Cross to effectively curtail any 'safety in numbers' strategy so as not to further antagonise loyalists. They willingly complied, not wishing to antagonise anyone, even their assailants.

Cut off from their own neighbourhood, parents and pupils became totally dependant for their protection upon the discredited RUC/PSNI and a hostile army of occupation. And then the situation deteriorated even further, as blast bombs and other missiles accompanied the sectarian and racist jeers.

Another significant factor in the 'policing' of the loyalist blockade was the failure of the RUC/PSNI to initiate any meaningful follow up operation. Throughout the entire ordeal, there were almost no arrests or raids in the loyalist Glenbyrn area. Loyalists would be allowed to act with near impunity and they knew it.

If the RUC/PSNI and British Army provided the means by which the loyalist blockade could continue, a whole range of other state agencies, like the NIO, the media, the Human Rights Commission, provided the climate within which it could flourish. Other institutions, like children's and women's organisations and charities and the trade union movement, who could and should have provided an alternative perspective, remained ambiguous or worse still, silent.

The ideological configuration that was sponsored and fed by journalists, unionist politicians, the British Secretary of State and even the head of the Human Rights Commission, Brice Dickson, complimented rather than challenged the framework presented by loyalists.

Blaming the victims

It worked on a number of levels. First there were a series of totally unrealistic propositions offered as 'options', initially by loyalists and repeated by other agencies, to the parents and children of Holy Cross.

The initial 'solution' was the notion that there was 'an alternative safe' route. Parents and pupils who failed to travel to school by this largely mythical 'safe alternative' were portrayed as intransigent and belligerent architects of their own misfortune.

The next notion to be mobilised, first by loyalists and then by others, was the idea of a 'fit parent'. On the first morning of the new term, as Catholic mothers escorted their children through a barrage of stones, bottles, fireworks and sectarian hatred, loyalists had labelled them 'whores' because "only sluts would drag their children through this".

This theme was later pursued by sectarian unionist killer Johnny Adair who, from the vantage point of his prison cell, blamed the parents: "I wouldn't bring my children up through a gauntlet of hate," said the UDA leader.

The real shame and hypocrisy lie not in Adair's words but in the fact that they were printed and reiterated by the media. One journalist went even further and accused the parents of Holy Cross children of child abuse.

Loyalist parents who kept their children away from school so they could participate in hurling sectarian insults and other missiles at their Catholic counterparts did not attract anything like the same level of hostility from the press.

But day after day, Catholic parents who were about to face a loyalist mob while walking their children to school were hauled up before the cameras and called to account for their behaviour.

It became the duty of those suffering to avoid persecution rather than the duty of those inflicting it to desist. Failure to act on unrealisable options attracted sanction. It was a kind of rerun of the old violence against women argument that 'she asked for it'.

'Glenbryn grievances'

Another myth perpetuated by many key agencies was the notion of 'Glenbryn grievances'. Loyalists had been "compelled" to "use such objectionable tactics", concluded one newspaper, because they "could find no other way of attracting attention" to highlight "their plight as an isolated, victimised and forgotten community". A unionist politician described the loyalist blockade as a "cry for help and understanding".

On the one hand we were being urged to distance ourselves from the plight of the children through the demonisation of their parents and the community to which they belonged. On the other we were being encouraged, even when it defied all sense or reason, to empathise with the loyalist blockaders.

The grievance most often cited by loyalists living in Glenbryn was that their homes were under constant sectarian attack by the nationalist community of Ardoyne. But official records told a completely different story. According to RUC/PSNI statistics, over 90% of sectarian attacks in the area during that period had been loyalists targeting Catholic homes and families.

In private, British NIO officials admitted that the position adopted by the loyalists was inconsistent and many of the 'grievances' cited did not stand up to scrutiny. But in public the lie was maintained. Even worse than that, it was acted upon.

During the blockade an 8.7 million urban renewal scheme, effectively mopping up all available funding for the North Belfast area, was awarded to Glenbryn. At the time of the announcement, of the 1,800 people in urgent need of housing, 1,700 were Catholics.

The cash injection not only awarded the criminal behaviour of Glenbryn loyalists, it also fuelled the myth that their sectarian attacks on Catholic school children could be best understood as a result of 'social deprivation'.

Human Rights Commission's failure

The Human Rights Commission, a body set up as part of the Good Friday Agreement, adopted a similarly damaging approach. For Brice Dickson, head of the HRC, a sectarian mob subjecting children on their way to school to violent attack and public humiliation was a matter of "competing rights".

Dickson argued that while children had the right to walk to school, loyalists also had a right to protest. His argument was simple but it was also wrong. This was not 'protest', this was persecution and the fact that the head of the HRC failed to understand the difference is a continuing tragedy for us all.

Dickson admitted that "terrible things are happening every day" and that it was wrong to block children but added, "a peaceful protest is not harming anyone". In fact, the loyalist blockade had never been peaceful and Brice Dickson knew it.

And just what was Dickson's definition of peaceful? Did it include the cacophony of noise deployed against terrified children, or hurling sectarian and racist verbal abuse as preferred to blast bombs? If Dickson was suggesting that any of this was any more acceptable, he was wildly mistaken. Clearly this wasn't an exercise in the right to protest but a hostile mob engaging in incitement to hatred.

Persecution comes in different forms but it isn't hard to recognise. Sometimes it is racist. Sometimes it's religious. Sometimes race and creed are inextricably linked. I can only hope that Dickson would never suggest that white supremacists have the right to protest, however peacefully, against black children walking to school.

No one can fully evaluate the encouragement afforded to violent loyalism by seeing their agenda repeated and endorsed by state agencies. At the very least it impacted on the duration of the blockade and the wholly unsatisfactory manner in which it was resolved.

Mothers and kids in the front line

Two important approaches adopted almost universally, both by those who held the interests of the children paramount and those with less worthy objectives, also proved to be fundamentally flawed. First was the notion, adopted by the local Catholic clergy, nationalists and republicans, that the 'decision' rested with parents and children and our role was simply to 'support' that decision.

There was a tragic, if unintentional, consequence of that approach. Loyalist paramilitaries, in a campaign to thwart the Good Friday Agreement and to swell their ranks with eager young recruits, put Catholic mothers and children walking to school in the front line. Did we leave them there?

And that's not to take away from the many good offices of local republicans, nationalists, human rights activists, parish priests and others - all of whom showed courage and restraint in very difficult circumstances.

But limiting the response to loyalist aggression to the 'decision' of parents and pupils left the focus located with the vulnerable members of the community we were supposed to be supporting.

Consequently, an enormous amount of pressure could be, and was, exerted by individuals and groups, from the loyalists (who upped the ante and issued death threats to individual parents) to other state agencies determined to end the blockade by inducing parents to take the decision not to walk to school.

At times this strategy collapsed into parents asking their children to make the decision of whether or not to go to school. Unbelievably, realisation of the Good Friday Agreement's promise of "the right to live free from sectarian harassment", sometimes turned on the tears of a small girl standing in an inhospitable street.

For northern nationalists as well as those directly involved, it became a lose-lose situation. Either nationalist children were prevented from going to school by the threat posed by a sectarian mob or, given the failure of state agencies, school attendance could only be secured through the exposure of nationalist children to the trauma of confrontation by a loyalist mob.

The second notion that inadvertently added to the plight of the pupils and parents of Holy Cross, was the claim that dialogue was the 'only' way to resolve the crisis. Of course in any dispute dialogue can play a decisive role in securing an agreed resolution.

But loyalists used initial attempts by parents of Holy Cross to initiate contact and enter into dialogue to aid their ability to pursue their violent sectarian agenda. Those parents who met with loyalist representatives were later targeted and ruthlessly persecuted.

Their names were often shouted, together with abuse and threats, by the mob during the school 'run'. Some were specifically targeted in loyalist paramilitary death threats. A few were forced to flee their homes and relocate in another district.

To claim that dialogue is the only way forward even in the face of persistent loyalist bad faith, merely provided a mechanism for non-intervention. For many state agencies and government bodies, the call for dialogue between Holy Cross parents and loyalists conveniently let them off the hook.

State agencies stand accused

In the end, international media attention and outside pressure from international human rights groups, Irish and Black America and a number of high profile political figures, like Hilary Clinton and South Africa's Bishop Tutu, led to the loyalists suspending the blockade in December 2001.

Amidst British government promises to address Glenbryn 'grievances' and loyalists threatening that the blockade might be reinstated "if the government does not fulfil its obligations", the blockade ended. But the nature of the blockade's suspension denied the parents and children of Holy Cross any security. To this day, the right to walk to school free from fear of sectarian harassment remains the 'gift' of loyalism to exercise as and when they see fit.

The legacy of Holy Cross continues to be experienced in the trauma of little girls, their parents and immediate community. For republicans, human rights activists and all those who used their best offices to support the parents and pupils and resolve their plight, evaluation of the way in which the sectarian agenda of loyalism can be challenged is paramount.

For the northern nationalist community, the culpability of state agencies in the persecution of the children of Holy Cross last year and the current persecution of the Short Strand community demands urgent address.