Belfast School Standoff Imperils Ireland's Unionists

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Parents comfort their daughters in the aftermath of a blast bomb attack

Images of Loyalist hatred and violence being directed at innocent Catholic four-year-olds in Belfast are far more powerful than any weapons the IRA has stashed away. Indeed, those images actually shift the Northern Ireland spotlight away from the IRA's refusal to begin destroying its weapons and onto the hate-filled extremists in the Protestant community. Four policemen were injured in the Ardoyne section of Belfast, Wednesday, by a blast from a bomb thrown at a group of Catholic children trying to reach the Holy Cross Girls' Primary School. It was the third day of trauma for the children whose path to school runs briefly down a Protestant street where they were forced to walk a gauntlet of taunting, abuse and violence reminiscent of the images of school desegregation battles of the American South.

Because of the proximity of its Catholic and Protestant residents, Ardoyne has been a flashpoint throughout a tense summer in which the Northern Ireland peace process ground to a halt. Protestant residents have vowed to stop the girls passing through their neighborhood in order to protest alleged Republican attacks. Police say extremist paramilitaries from both sides of the sectarian divide are active in the area. But the scale of the violence and hatred in Ardoyne has now prompted the leaders of most Loyalist parties to condemn the protestors.

In the tit-for-tat blame game over the stalled Northern Ireland peace process, the Ardoyne incident couldn't have come at a better time for the Sinn Fein. The most recent collapse of the institutions of Northern Ireland's self-government were widely blamed on the refusal of the IRA to begin decommissioning its weapons, and the recent capture by Colombian authorities of three alleged IRA men accused of training that country's leftist guerrillas had done little to improve the image of the Republican cause. The Ardoyne standoff, however, is a reminder of the communal hatreds that helped spawn today's IRA, and of the ugly bigotry and extremism that persists in a section of the Loyalist movement.

Ardoyne has been a disaster for the Unionist politicians seeking international sympathy for their reluctance to press forward with the peace agreement while the IRA remains fully armed. And despite their limited scope, attacks on young children there threaten to plunge Northern Ireland back into a far deeper crisis as images of unmitigated hatred threaten to provoke inter-communal clashes at other flashpoints. And it's a crisis that will ultimately hurt the Loyalist cause. Indeed, there are signs of increasing impatience, or even distaste in Britain over the Loyalist's desire to keep Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom. A Guardian newspaper poll last month found that 41 percent of Britons favor the Republican goal of uniting Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic, while only 26 percent want it to remain part of the U.K. Analysts attributed the sharp drop in British public support for the Loyalist cause to a kind of "a-pox-on-both-your-houses" impatience with the floundering peace process. The images of Ardoyne are unlikely to engender any new British enthusiasm for hanging onto Ulster, and that ultimately works in the Republican favor.

More immediately, though, the danger of violence spreading could hurt the long-term peace project that leaders on both sides had judged to be in their communities' mutual interest. And that may see some good come of the ugliness at Ardoyne — it has given leaders on both sides a compelling incentive to walk the crisis back from the brink, and get the peace process back on track.