- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2001

BELFAST — Terrified Roman Catholic schoolgirls clung to their parents yesterday as riot police held back crowds of angry Protestants trying to keep them from walking to school through their neighborhood on the first day of classes.

A Catholic mother was hit in the face with a bottle and hospitalized as police pushed Protestants away from the disputed road in Ardoyne, a mostly Catholic district of north Belfast that has been torn by riots this summer.

Most of the pupils — girls as young as 4 wearing brand-new red uniforms — were sent home early, in tears, from Holy Cross Primary School. A fleet of Catholic-run black taxis ferried them past lines of police with helmets and shields, while many of the Protestants shouted curses and insults.

"This looks like Alabama in the '60s," said Brendan Mailey, leader of a Catholic parents group that refused to use a rear entrance and insisted on using the front door of the school, which lies in the small Protestant section of Ardoyne.

"It's beyond my worst nightmare," said the Rev. Aidan Troy, a Catholic priest who was appointed governor of the school during the summer vacation break. "The abuse I heard was unbelievable. It was one of the most savage experiences of my life."

Father Troy urged Catholic parents to use the school's rear entrance today, an option some of the political hard-liners among the parents rejected during previous confrontations in June. Protestants have not challenged Catholics using the rear entrance.

Local Protestants said yesterday that they were responding to Catholic attacks on their neighborhood, which is separated from the Catholic part of the district by high metal fences. Houses on both sides have been attacked in recent months with stones, gasoline and pipe bombs and even bursts of gunfire, prompting many residents to abandon their homes indefinitely.

Rival mobs of Catholics and Protestants clashed with police as darkness fell yesterday. Police said they were pelted with stones and other objects, and at least three officers were injured.

Protestant protest leaders said earlier that their attempted blockade was aimed at the schoolgirls' parents, some of whom they accused of being Irish Republican Army members orchestrating violence.

"It's the parents we have the problem with, not the children. When they stop attacking this community, we'll think about letting them back up the Ardoyne Road," said Jim Potts, leader of the protest group that blocked the road outside the school for two weeks in June.

Mr. Potts — identified by police as a member of the outlawed Ulster Defense Association, a Protestant group that attacked several Catholic homes in Ardoyne this summer — said the British government should build a new elementary school for the Catholics in their own area.

"Why was this school ever allowed to be built here in the first place?" he asked. He suggested Protestant children be allowed to use it instead.

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