CATHOLIC girls reach Belfast school in peace after grim walk through armored corridor

Friday, September 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ More than 100 Catholic girls and their parents reached their besieged elementary school in relative peace Friday as hard-line Protestants in surrounding houses staged only a silent protest for the first time this week.

Under drizzly gray skies, the Catholics walked from their section of Ardoyne, a polarized north Belfast neighborhood, into the Protestant section where the girls' Holy Cross Primary School is located.

Their way was lined by dozens of British army and police armored vehicles, and a British surveillance helicopter hovered overhead. But Protestant residents had decided to back off after suffering international criticism for their community's attacks on the Catholics and the police guarding them since Monday.

An hour before the Catholics' grim procession, about 200 Protestants held a rally and prayer vigil in honor of a Protestant teen-ager killed during the rioting that wracked much of north Belfast earlier this week.

They appealed for the Catholics not to walk up the disputed stretch of Ardoyne road in respect to the victim, 16-year-old Thomas McDonald, who has been the only fatality connected to the past week's street mayhem in Belfast.

Instead, the Catholic school's governor, the Rev. Aidan Troy, was joined by a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Norman Hamilton, in leading brief prayers for McDonald. Troy also welcomed each parent and child at the entrance to the school, which was built in the Protestant area in the late 1960s just before three decades of sectarian conflict began in Northern Ireland.

As the Catholics entered the school a small Protestant crowd stood about 100 yards away in the rain but threw no stones, hurled no curses, blew no whistles or horns as has been the case the previous four days.

McDonald was crushed beneath his bicycle during rioting in another nearby neighborhood, and a Catholic woman driving the car has been charged with his murder. He was being buried Friday.

More than 50 police officers have been wounded in rioting in several contested parts of north Belfast this week, particularly in the streets nearest the school. A Catholic mother was hit in the face with a bottle by Protestants when the protest ignited Monday, but there have been no physical injuries to other parents or any of the children.

The Irish News, the main Catholic-read newspaper in Belfast, reported Friday that at least 15 of the girls, aged 4 to 11, were taking tranquilizers or sedatives to calm their frayed nerves, particularly since Wednesday when a homemade grenade injured police officers as the children were walking to school nearby.

Some politicians said Friday's calm provided an opportunity for reconciliation.

``I believe there is a changed atmosphere. We must use that space to start talks and address the deep-seated problems here,'' said Alban Maginness, the leading north Belfast representative from the Social Democratic and Labor Party, which the most moderate Catholics support. He appealed for both sides to form a joint community forum immediately.

Most Catholics in Ardoyne support Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army-linked party. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams joined local parents at the confrontation point, and called for Ardoyne's Protestants to back off for good.

``There's no right to protest against children, and this protest must end regardless of what else does or doesn't happen,'' Adams said Friday.