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Holy Cross blockade ends
After twelve weeks loyalists have called off their blockade of Holy Cross primary school in the Upper Ardoyne area. This decision, taken after negotiations at Stormont with First Minister David Trimble and Deputy First Minister Mark Durkan, was claimed to have been made on the basis of a document from the Executive which set out proposals for addressing the concerns of loyalist residents. It contained a package of “safety” measures for the Glenbryn area. These included speed ramps, CCTV and a permanent police checkpoint. There were also promises of extra resources for housing, employment projects, and economic regeneration. All of this is to be underpinned through the establishment of a community forum in which Nationalists and Unionists can discuss the social and economic problems of North Belfast.
Gerry Adams described the Holy Cross blockade as the “biggest test” facing the Good Friday institutions. It is therefore no surprise that the solution to that test bears all the hallmarks of these institutions. To a large degree the deal that ended the blockade is a microcosm of the wider political settlement. In effect, what has been brokered is a local Good Friday Agreement. Like the agreement, it is firmly based on the concept of community conflict. The blockade of a primary school is therefore not viewed as a civil rights issue. All political parties, aided by a servile media, agreed that this was a “dispute” between two communities, in which there was grievance and culpability on both sides. Rather than a defence of children’s rights to travel to school free from harassment, the accepted approach was to encourage the “two sides” to come together to seek a “resolution” of their differences. This was expressed in the call for “community dialogue”, the clear inference of which was that there was an equivalence between the victims and their victimisers. Indeed, the deal to end the blockade, with its emphasis on security for the Glenbryn area, legitimises the claims by loyalists that their area is the subject of aggressive encroachment by nationalists. It also emboldens bigots by demonstrating that resources will be allocated not on the basis of need but through sectarian agitation. One loyalist spokesperson claimed that through the Holy Cross blockade, they “managed to achieve in 22 weeks more than the community had got in 20 years”.
As usual the British projected themselves as a neutral arbitrator balancing the conflicting demands of the two communities. In reality, the British state was an active participant, both in the blockade and in the settlement that ended it. The truth is that the loyalist blockade was actually facilitated by the state security forces. Their “protection” of children going to school amounted to setting up a gauntlet through which pupils and parents had to walk as they were subjected to a torrent of abuse. This was only shaken by a pipe-bomb attack on the third day of the blockade. Secretary of State John Reid condemned this as “barbarism”, but only a few days later was commending loyalists as they returned to more “peaceful” tactics. The British government was prepared to accommodate loyalists as long as they kept within acceptable bounds - spitting, sounding horns, issuing death threats and jeering at children was alright, but trying to kill them was not. Later in the blockade, the police came to an agreement with loyalists on how the protest would be conducted. In contrast, the Holy Cross parents had no say on the security arrangements to take them and their children to school.
If there had been the political will, the security forces could have quickly dispersed the loyalist protest. However, it was not in their interests to do so. The blockade presented the British government with the opportunity to bring disaffected loyalists back into the peace process. It could use the situation at Holy Cross to demonstrate to loyalists that by moderating their demands, or at least presenting them in more reasonable terms, they could reap rewards. Although, everyone was calling for dialogue, the process that actually produced a settlement was the mediation of loyalist demands through the machinery of the Agreement. After being taken up by local Unionist Assembly members, and going through the Executive and the Office of First Minister, the loyalist demand for ‘Fenians off the road’ was translated into a call for ‘safety measures’. These were demands that the British could be seen to agree to, even if in practical terms they amounted to much the same thing. While local parties negotiated the settlement, it could not have come about without the political endorsement and the commitment of resources by Britain.
Like the Good Friday Agreement, the basis of the Holy Cross settlement is the establishment of a layer of bureaucracy through which political patronage can be dispensed. This comes in the form of extra resources for loyalist areas and the creation of a forum on which their representatives can sit to determine its distribution. If they can’t make it onto the Stormont gravy train then loyalists can have their own local version as compensation. This part of the package is designed to appeal particularly to UDA elements that have been drifting away from the Agreement. By drawing a section of them into the political structures, the British also hope to diminish a source of instability.
The objective of Sinn Fein in the Holy Cross blockade was primarily to prevent an escalation. If the loyalist blockade was to spread there was a danger that the credibility of the Good Friday Agreement would have been seriously damaged. While maintaining a rhetorical commitment to civil rights, in practice Sinn Fein, like all the other parties, promoted a settlement based on “community dialogue”. Sinn Fein’s single criticism of the settlement was that most of the resources were allocated to Protestant areas. The only people who raised the banner of civil rights was the parents’ Right to Education Group. It was the parents and pupils that braved the blockade everyday, and it was they who challenged the attempts to isolate and downplay what was going on. Also, by taking legal action against the police and the Secretary of State for failing to protect their children, they clearly identified where the problem lay.
One of the positive developments during the blockade was a solidarity demonstration in Belfast City centre. Addressed by veteran campaigners Eammon McCann and Bernadette McAliskey, the biggest response from the 500 strong crowd came when they denounced the failure of the Agreement to defend the rights of children, and the idea that there could be a balance struck between civil rights and bigotry.
Holy Cross clearly demonstrates the failure of the Agreement to guarantee civil rights. The institutions it created to promote rights - the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission - could only put out a statement calling for both the rights of the children and those of the loyalist protesters to be respected. At the same time as the blockade was going on, there were consultations going on over a Bill of Rights and the appointment of a Children’s Commissioner for the Assembly. Yet, they refused to take up the most obvious denial of rights and abuse of children at Holy Cross.
The tragedy is that the indifference of state bodies charged with upholding children’s welfare was matched by the trade union movement. The Northern Committee of ICTU merely endorsed the call for community dialogue. An appeal from the Right to Education Group for teachers to support them was ignored. A day of action across Protestant and Catholic schools in support of Holy Cross could have been a powerful counter to sectarianism, and an assertion that this was an issue of civil rights not community. The failure of this alternative to materialise is one of the reasons why a settlement was reached that strengthens and institutionalises sectarian division. While there is understandable relief that the blockade has ended, there is likely to be disappointment as the implications of this settlement soon become apparent.