The beginning of September is a nightmare for parents. They say that getting their kids ready for learning and getting back into the swing of the school year is always the hardest during the first week. There’s a lot of pressure already on everyone. So what happens when an actual battle is being waged every day on top of that and your little girls are being attacked? Well, everything and everyone explodes – just ask the people in the area of Ardoyne, near the interface.
I have a hard line when it comes to things I just can’t see both sides of and that line is when children are abused. Grown men and women spewing hatred and violence at children is an awful sight, and thankfully a pretty rare one these days. Here in the U.S. scenes like that are mostly a thing of the past – left behind by the de-segregration of the relatively successful Civil Rights movement. We still have some awful bigotry, a lot of race and gender problems, and kids are still bullied but it is thankfully unusual for adults to perpetuate mob mentality and group violence against kids. Adults should always know better than to target young children. Sadly, not everyone gets that message and grown men and women spent months hurling abuse and trash on young girls – some as young as the age of four. It’s an awful sight and it still makes my stomach churn. These girls were hit in the head with everything from rubbish and food to rocks, urine, and petrol, and nasty words and threats were commonplace. The North of Ireland is a strange place and all too recently, the hatred was so palpable and contagious that the natural protective instincts of parenthood strangely went right out the window. For weeks it became acceptable for a lot of people to traumatize, threaten, and hurl abuse at little girls – and it is an incident that still haunts those kids and the area today.
In 2001, the height of the Troubles were over, though apparently someone forgot to let the people of Ardoyne know. Protestants and Catholics were still segregated (as they are to this day for the most part) and tensions were running high. Peace walls were erected in an effort to stem the violence to no avail. Unfortunately, for Holy Cross schoolgirls, those tensions and violent problems exploded in the place they were supposed to be learning and feeling safe. Holy Cross is a Catholic school for girls and it is located smack dab in the middle of a hotbed of sectarian suspicion and violence. It’s in an area that is known for flare ups even now. That year Loyalists in the area were claiming that their homes were being targeted by their Republican counterparts and tit for tat smatterings of shootings and destruction were regular occurrences. Tensions were ramping up – to the joy of various paramilitary groups who were using the conflicts to their advantage. They hit an all time high (or low, as the case may be) when it became justifiable to take it out on the children.
It actually began in June of 2001 – during the last few days of school before summer break. Angry Protestants and Loyalists lined the routes to the school and started intimidation tactics, protesting the children (and their parents) who were walking through their neighborhood. It reached a point when the girls, ages 4-11, could not ever travel alone and were taking back roads and cutting through a boy’s college just to get to their school. The protests continued until the end of the school year and many hoped they would be forgotten when it started again in the Fall.
When the first week of September arrived and school started it was clear that the Loyalists were far from done. The mob came back even larger and angrier than before. Parents of the girls had to escort the children through a “gauntlet of hate” – trying to shield them from various thrown objects and verbal abuse. It got worse and worse as it went on and the “protests” lasted for nearly 12 weeks. The adults abused the children as they tried make it to school – a place where they should be learning lessons from a book. Instead, they were learning lessons on the street – ones that taught them that there was no safe place for them to go and that hate was a part of life that they’d better get used to quick.
Girls that young barely understand anything yet, especially the intricacies of sectarianism and politics. All they know is that there’s a mob 200 people strong trying to scare and hurt them- or at the very least, keep them from going to school. Who does that? The footage looks like a war zone and is terrifying to watch. It is full of crying girls and their rightfully angry and protective parents. Eventually, it was also full of the RUC who had to be there in increasing numbers to separate and protect the girls from the attacks. Six months later, the RUC was still there watching to make sure that the crowds stayed away.
Documentaries and interviews of those involved have been released in the years since, from both sides of the barricade. In them, each victim of the religious divide says almost identical things about feeling unsafe or how many attacks each have suffered. It’s ironic and sad that no one can seem to sympathize with the others, given that their words and feelings about their homes and way of life are exactly the same. This lack of empathy and refusal to accept each other, remains a problem even now.
In a more recent political attack, the school was painted red and blue and a Union Jack was raised on the roof. There have been many incidents of graffiti, using Sectarian slang to intimidate the students and infuriate the parents. At least two pipe bombs have been left on the grounds at the start of various school years. This is a pattern of attacking children that should not be tolerated by anyone, no matter what dogma you believe in and is almost unheard of in what we like to call the “civilized” world.
This 3 month blitz took place only 13 years ago and the other incidents have happened in the years since. Many of those young girls are now becoming young women – and they are all still scarred by what happened to them when they were kids. Some have been shaped by those days, doomed to continue the divide while others have tried to work through their own trauma with compassion by reaching out to their counterparts in the hope that nothing like this will ever happen again. Everyone deserves to go to school safely, no matter where they live and it is my sincere wish that there are eventually enough people in Ardoyne and everywhere else – men and women, boys and girls – who do not tolerate or teach this kind of behavior. Only then will it truly become unacceptable to attack anyone, no matter how old they are and the atmosphere may actually improve. This cycle needs to end with a whisper and not another bang – especially when it comes to the little girls of the future.