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Blockade Near Catholic School Ends

N. Ireland: Group suspends the daily haranguing in Belfast after officials promise to address safety concerns.

November 25, 2001|From Reuters

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Protestant hard-liners have suspended their controversial blockade near a Roman Catholic school in Belfast, in which children ran a daily gantlet of sectarian hatred.

Dozens of girls, some as young as 4, have endured a daily torrent of insults and obscenities from Protestant adults for nearly 12 weeks as their parents led them to the Holy Cross Primary School in the Ardoyne district of the British province's capital.

After the province's first minister, moderate Protestant leader David Trimble, and his Roman Catholic deputy, Mark Durkan, held talks with both sides, a package of community safety measures was put to the Protestant residents, who then called a halt to their protest Friday.

Among the measures the Protestants want to see implemented are the uses of closed-circuit television and more police patrols in the area.

Protestant residents said the promised measures would help prevent what they say are Catholic attacks on their homes. But a spokesman for the Protestants, Jim Potts, warned the government not to renege on the deal.

"If the government does not fulfill their obligations, we will go back to the protest," Potts said.

Protestants said they blame local Catholics for the bitter standoff because they harassed people trying to go to shops that lie in the nationalist end of the disputed stretch of the Ardoyne Road.

Catholics deny the accusations and say they have been attacked by Protestants.

During the protests, demonstrators blew whistles, threw rocks and hurled urine-filled bags at Catholic children as riot police and armed British soldiers tried to shield them during their daily walk to school, located in a hard-line Protestant enclave.

In one incident, a bomb thrown at police lines injured several officers and a dog.

In recent weeks, the atmosphere has been less tense, with Protestants shouting insults from behind police lines.

The move to suspend the blockade was expected to pave the way for direct talks between both sides in the dispute, though it was not clear what form the talks would take or when they would be held.

The Rev. Aidan Troy, Roman Catholic chairman of Holy Cross' board of governors, said he hoped that trust between both sides could be rebuilt.

"It's been a trying time for everybody, even people who weren't directly involved in the school," he said. "Hopefully, this is the beginning of a new and better life for us all."

Some Catholic residents expressed relief that Protestants had decided to call off the protests and said they hoped to be able to take their children to school in safety Monday.

Nigel Dodds, a Protestant and member of the British Parliament for the area, said the decision was positive news.

"There needs to be dialogue, and I hope that as a result of this move, there will be a positive response from the nationalist community and that we can now move forward . . . and make real and substantial progress," Dodds told Sky television.

The dispute dates to June, when rioting flared in some of Belfast's cheek-by-jowl Protestant and Catholic enclaves. The Protestants in the Upper Ardoyne area, where the school is located, said they had been intimidated by Catholics.

The scenes were ugly even by the standards of Belfast, which is no stranger to eruptions of sectarian violence, and led to outbreaks of unrest in other parts of the city as tensions rose.

A shortage of housing in the area has increased tensions, with both sides worried about losing ground.

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