The Shame Of Belfast

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A sign inside the front door of Holy Cross primary school in north Belfast reads, "If we'd been born where they were born and taught what they were taught, we would believe what they believe."

Before they could get inside to read that sign last week, pupils of Holy Cross--Roman Catholic girls as young as four, none older than 11--got a brutal lesson in belief. To get to school, they had to run a gauntlet of abuse from their Protestant neighbors that began with insults and spit and within days escalated to bricks and blast bombs. Scores of police and soldiers were injured protecting the children. As the chaos spread, a Protestant school bus was stoned, and a Catholic motorist--apparently reacting to stone-throwing attacks--struck and killed a Protestant teenager.

In one sense, the violence was only another bout of the Northern Ireland Troubles that have continued for more than 30 years. Those few square miles of north Belfast around Holy Cross are notorious for sectarian hatred. A fifth of all the killings in Northern Ireland's conflict have happened here. But the terrified, tear-streaked faces of little girls cowering beside their frightened parents left people profoundly shocked. The sight of grown men and women, their faces distorted by hatred, hurling curses, stones and even a pipe bomb in the direction of children evoked uncomfortable comparisons with the desegregation conflicts of the American South in the 1960s. It was too much even for some longtime veterans of the Troubles. Billy Hutchinson, a leader of the Progressive Unionist Party who once was a member of a loyalist paramilitary group, said the attacks made him "ashamed to be a loyalist."

Sadly, even Hutchinson then reverted to what the Northern Irish call "what aboutery"--joining other politicians in circular arguments blaming the current outrage on some past transgression by the other side. The immediate goad here was said to be a summer full of attacks on local homes with stones and Molotov cocktails, which had been fueled by disputes over who could hang their flags from which lampposts, access for Protestants to shops in the Catholic zone, even which side of the street Catholic parents were walking on when school ended last June.

The outrages were horrific and tragic, for much had been going right in the province. The 1998 Good Friday agreement ushered in a period of relative peace, stability and economic growth. But the bigotry and mistrust at the root of the conflict go on. Ulster remains essentially divided, Protestants and Catholics living separate lives. Education is segregated. Less than 5% of the children go to shared schools. Sectarian attacks are on the rise again.

The pattern of residential segregation is clearly present around Holy Cross. Its pupils come from Ardoyne, a Catholic area where the row houses are filled by a young and growing population. The residents would like to expand into the Protestant areas nearby, including Glenbryn, where the school is located. There the people tend to be aging or moving to the suburbs, so public housing often lies empty. But the remaining residents don't want to give up those houses to Catholics and see their territory gradually swallowed up.

The Protestants of Glenbryn claim that Catholics, backed by the Irish Republican Army, are manufacturing the scenes at Holy Cross. Catholic parents say the attacks are based purely on bigotry. But what tormented Anne Tanney, the principal of Holy Cross, was less the cause of the violence than the damage it may do to her pupils. Some of the girls had been given sedatives, and she worried about the long-term effects of the hatred. "Sectarianism has no place in this school," she said.

There are small signs that tolerance may yet prevail. "There's a little bad and a lot of good in everybody," said 10-year-old Nicole McCrory about the men and women shouting abuse at her. "They're the same as us," said a classmate. One day, perhaps, all of Ulster's children will practice the tolerance their parents never learned.