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Siege in Ardoyne
Children from a particular ethnic group are allowed access to school only by the back door. Where are we? Some fascist redoubt in the Balkans? A timewarp in the deep South of America? An enclave of the old South Africa? No. We are in the British colony in the North of Ireland, the area supposedly democratised by the Good Friday agreement. In the run-up to the Twelfth - the sectarian orange festival - Loyalists in Belfast's Ardoyne area demonstrated against Catholic primary school children attending school. The children were forced to enter and leave the school by travelling across fields to the back door of the school. The protests only ended when the school closed for the summer holidays.
The explanation for the outbreak of sectarianism can be found in the results of the Westminster elections. There were clear indications that the good Friday agreement is producing an even more sectarian society, with Sinn Fein gaining votes, not as a republican party, but as the most vociferous communal party for catholic rights while the DUP garner the growing hard-line bigot's vote within unionism. Both unionist and nationalist communities showed tendencies to be drawn together into two big sectarian blocs. The major casualties were the smaller Loyalist parties. The chief sufferer was the UDP, political voice of the UDA, although the PUP, voice of the UVF death squads had suffered also. The UDA had never developed beyond a federation of gangsters and had failed even to register properly for the electrons. Led by the infamous Shankill C company, they went back full time to what they do best - sectarian intimidation of Catholics, with the front line in the north Belfast. This also had the advantage of keeping Protestant workers in line and protecting drug dealing and racketeering operations.
In fact the loyalist groups have been involved in a growing campaign of violence for some time. Low-level ethnic cleansing of Catholics is interspersed with drug and turf wars amongst themselves. The British had to step in before the elections to force them to issue a statement saying that they were still on ceasefire - this didn't change their behaviour but did justify the British turning a blind eye and continuing to fund their activities.
The confrontation in the Ardoyne arose when UDA members were erecting sectarian emblems at the entrance to the school and began intimidating parents collecting their children. When the parents retaliated loyalist reinforcements quickly arrived and a “Harryville situation” arose. Harryville was the church in Ballymena besieged by Orangemen for over a year in retaliation for blockage of the Orange march at Drumcree. What the Loyalists were saying in Ballymena then, and are saying in Ardoyne now, is that if nationalists protest against bigotry they will respond by laying siege to isolated communities. An interesting aspect of the Ardoyne siege was the leading role played by Billy Hutchinson, PUP assembly member and hailed as a socialist by many on the Irish and British left.
Enter the new RUC. They had distinguished themselves earlier by dispersing without arrest 30 UDA members who had trashed a street in North Belfast, burning three cars and smashing up homes. Their contribution to keeping the peace was to prevent the children and their parents from going to school. As is normal in these situations, only a token loyalist presence was necessary. The RUC took over the job of suppressing the Catholics.
In the riots that followed yet another local tradition was followed when the RUC used the new, more lethal, plastic bullets that they were recently issued with against nationalist youth while attempting to conciliate the loyalists.
What was new in the situation was the attitude of Sinn Fein. After what one of their leading members described privately as playacting the republicans acted quickly to contain protests, earning praise from the RUC for their efficiency in demobilising nationalist protest.
Negotiations followed with the “compromise” that the children could use the back door to school. This was formally rejected by the nationalists but became the de facto settlement on the last week of school term.
On the ground republicans stressed the “big picture”. The big picture on this occasion seemed to have been their unsuccessful attempts to get the unionist Alliance candidate to support their candidate for Lord Major of the local council.