In June 2001, Protestant loyalists began picketing the school, claiming that Catholics were regularly attacking their homes and denying them access to facilities. For weeks, hundreds of protesters tried to stop the schoolchildren and their parents from walking to school through their area. Some protesters shoutedsectarian abuse and threw stones, bricks, fireworks, blast bombs and urine-filled balloons at the schoolchildren and their parents. Hundreds of riot police, backed up byBritish soldiers, escorted the children and their parents through the protest each day. The “scenes of frightened Catholic schoolgirls running a gauntlet of abuse from loyalist protesters as they walked to school captured world headlines”. Death threats were made against the parents and school staff by the Red Hand Defenders, a loyalist paramilitary group. The protest was condemned by both Catholics and Protestants, including politicians. Some likened the protest to child abuse and compared the protesters to Americanwhite supremacists in 1950sAlabama.
The first picket took place in June, during the last week of school before the summer break. It resumed on 3 September, at the beginning of the new school term, and lasted until 23 November. During this time, the protest sparked fierce rioting between Catholics and Protestants in Ardoyne. The loyalists agreed to “suspend” the protest after being promised tighter security for their area.
In January 2002, a scuffle between a Protestant man and a Catholic woman outside the school sparked a large-scale riot in the area. The picket was not resumed and the situation has been mostly quiet since then. The following year, the BBC aired a documentary-drama about the protests.
In the summer of 2001, the RUC received intelligence that UDA members were planning to “exploit community tensions” to kill nationalists, Catholics and/or police officers
On Tuesday 19 June, Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers had to protect children and parents entering the school after they were attacked by loyalist stone throwers. Police described the attack as “vicious”. Following the incident, a blockade of the school developed, with loyalists standing across the road and RUC officers keeping the children and their parents away. This continued each morning for the rest of the week, when the school closed for the summer break.
The following day, the school was forced to close when loyalists blocked the entrance. During the evening, hundreds of loyalists and nationalists clashed with each other and with the police. Shots were also fired at the police. During the riots the police fired a number of the new ‘L21 A1′ plastic baton rounds for the first time.
The morning blockade continued on Thursday 21 June. About 60 of the school’s 230 pupils entered the school through the grounds of another school. Senior Sinn Féin member Gerry Kellysaid: “It’s like something out of Alabamain the 1960s”. Three Protestant families left their homes in Ardoyne Avenue, saying they were afraid of a nationalist attack. During the evening and night there were serious disturbances in the area around the school. Loyalists fired ten shots, and threw six blast bombs and 46 petrol bombs at police lines.Two Catholic homes were attacked with pipe bombs, and a child was thrown against a wall by one of the blasts.
On Friday 22 June, a number of schoolchildren again had to enter the school through the grounds of another school. This was the last day of school before the summer break.
Talks between the protesters and the schoolchildrens’ parents took place over the summer, but no agreement was reached. On 20 August, a ‘paint bomb’ was thrown at the home of a Protestant man in Hesketh Park, smashing a window and causing paint damage to furniture. The man had taken part in the loyalist protest
The protest resumed on Monday 3 September, the first day of the Autumn school term. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (over the summer the RUC had undergone a name change), supported by the British Army, were by then better prepared and managed to force a path through the protesters. Loyalists jeered and shouted sectarian abuse as the children, some as young as four, were escorted into the school by their parents and the police. Stones and bottles were thrown at the children and their parents; one woman was injured. A mother of one of the schoolgirls said: “It was absolutely terrifying. They were shouting ‘dirty tramps’, ‘your kids are animals’, ‘Fenianscum’, ‘you Fenian bastards’. And all we were trying to do was get our kids to school”. Unionist politicians claimed a “heavy-handed” police presence had inflamed the situation, while theProgressive Unionist Party’s Billy Hutchinson alleged that five known IRA men had been allowed to walk with the children through the Protestant area.
Later in the day the Red Hand Defenders(RHD), an illegal loyalist paramilitary group, warned parents and children to stay away from the Ardoyne Road. A threat was also issued against police officers. During the evening there was violence near the school as youths from both sides attacked each other and the security forces. Three Catholic-owned homes on Newington Avenue were badly damaged in a loyalist pipe bombattack. The blast caused an oil tank to catch fire and the flames spread to three houses, one of which was completely destroyed. Another pipe bomb exploded in the garden of a house in the White City area. There was also violence on North Queen Street and Limestone Road
Wednesday 5 September: As the parents and their children passed Glenbryn Parade, loyalists threw a blast bomb towards them. The device exploded, injuring two police officers and a police dog. Panic ensued. Children began screaming and “weeping uncontrollably” and one mother suffered a panic attack. All were taken to hospital. The Red Hand Defenders (RHD) said it was responsible for the attack. Afterward, Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) politician Billy Hutchinson said he was “ashamed to be a loyalist today after seeing these people attack young Catholic girls”. However, he says he continued to stand with the protesters each morning to show leadership.
Wednesday 26 September: Protesters threw fireworks at children and parents returning from the school during the afternoon Week fiveMonday 1 October: Protesters continued their noisy protest as children and parents entered and left the school. Some protesters threw urine-filled balloons at the children and parents. Cups of cold tea and water were also thrown by protesters
Wednesday 10 October: Many of the protesters had begun to hide their identity and some were wearing masks of characters from horror movies. Local doctor Michael Tan said that some of the schoolchildren’s families were near “breaking point” and parents and children were in need of professional psychological care. Bryce Dickson, head of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, visited the scene of the protest. He spoke to some of the protesters but was criticised by some of the parents of the children for not walking the route with them as Quentin Davies had done
On Wednesday 9 January 2002, there were confrontations outside the school during the early afternoon. Disturbances and rioting quickly spread throughout Ardoyne during the evening and into the night. Catholic parents and Protestant residents each claimed that the other side had started the trouble. Catholic parents said that they had faced increased verbal abuse since Monday during their walks to and from school and that they were attacked while leaving the school on Wednesday afternoon. A Catholic mother claimed she was punched in the face as she walked home from the school with her child. Police officers said they arrived at a confrontation between a Protestant woman and a Catholic woman near the school. The police moved to make an arrest but the person was protected by other residents. Police officers said they had to draw their weapons. There was a report that loyalists had driven a car at the school gates in an attempt to break in. Some schoolchildren had to be taken home through the grounds of another school while a bus carrying other children was attacked on its way down Ardoyne Road. Protestant residents claimed the trouble started when Catholics removed a wreath from a lamp-post.
Up to 500 loyalists and nationalists were involved in the disturbances on the Ardoyne Road, Crumlin Road and Brompton Park areas. About 130 petrol bombs, acid bombs and fireworks were thrown. Four Catholic youths were hospitalised after being hit by shotgun pellets at Hesketh Park; loyalists petrol-bombed and destroyed a police vehicle; Catholic homes were attacked on the Upper Crumlin Road; a Catholic woman was knocked-down by a car on Twaddell Avenue; a Catholic man was struck by a police vehicle, and a 13-year-old Protestant schoolboy was injured when a bus was attacked. The police fired eight plastic bullets and arrested three people. As the trouble worsened, 200 police officers, backed by 200 soldiers, were deployed. At least 14 police officers were injured.
The following day, the Holy Cross school was forced to close for the day. Some other schools in the area closed early due to fears about the safety of schoolchildren. In the morning, six loyalists, one with a gun, rampaged through the grounds of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic girls’ secondary school, smashing 18 cars with crowbars. Parents rushed to collect their hysterical daughters. In the afternoon, Protestant pupils from Boys’ Model Secondary School were ferried home in police armoured Land Rovers past nationalist crowds on Crumlin Road. Catholic parents and Protestant residents held separate meetings to discuss the situation.
On Friday 11 January, the Red Hand Defenders issued a death threat against all Catholic teachers and all other staff working at Catholic schools in north Belfast. That weekend, two Catholic schools were set on fire and teachers’ cars were attacked. On Monday, more than 750 armed police officers and soldiers were sent to guard Catholic schools in north Belfast while armoured vehicles lined Ardoyne Road. There was no protest outside the school and there was no serious violence, although there were a few minor scuffles. TheNorthern Ireland Office announced that permanent CCTV cameras would be installed on the Ardoyne Road. A temporary system was to be put in place while waiting for the permanent installation
These are just a few of the key points. Sadly there are many many more.
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