Peaceful march to school as deal ends Holy Cross protests

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Catholic children attended the Holy Cross school in north Belfast without having to run a gauntlet of loyalist mobs for the first time in three months yesterday.

More than 100 girls, aged five to 11, walked up the Ardoyne Road holding hands with their parents, watched by a few dozen police officers and a small group of Protestant observers. But the peace was disturbed by the discovery of a pipe-bomb in the back garden of a Catholic home about 600 yards from the school.

Loyalists had set up daily pickets on the road, which runs from a Catholic area to the school on a Protestant estate, since September – leading to a series of verbal and sometimes violent confrontations.

The protests, which were widely condemned, were called off last Friday after negotiations led by Northern Ireland's First Minister, David Trimble, and his SDLP deputy, Mark Durkan. Residents accepted a package of security measures in their neighbourhood, including CCTV cameras, speed ramps and increased police patrols as part of the deal to end the protests.

On Sunday night talks were held at Belfast City Hall between Catholic parents and residents of the loyalist Glenbryn estate about setting up a cross-community forum.

Then at 8.30am yesterday, parents and pupils from Holy Cross, led by Tracy McLaughlin and her five-year-old daughter Megan, set off along the 400-yard route to the school.

Security forces dramatically scaled down their presence. For the past 12 weeks they have used riot shields and armoured vehicles to separate the protesters from the children and their parents, which has cost about £3m.

But Mrs McLaughlin said the atmosphere remained strained: "It seems very weird. It's like walking through the valley of the dead. This place will never be the same again."

Mr Trimble said: "We're delighted that children were today able to attend school without any fear or obstacle and nothing in their way, except a few gentlemen from the press."

Chief Inspector Murray Sterritt, of the Northern Ireland Police Service, said: "We would be fairly confident that things will continue to go well from what I've heard from both communities. Everyone is pushing to get this resolved."

Police appealed for information after bomb disposal experts were called in to defuse the pipe-bomb found on Alliance Avenue, the dividing line between the two communities. Police confirmed it was a device of the type used in hundreds of loyalist paramilitary attacks against Catholics.