Protestant pupils stage walkouts in anger at McGuinness appointment

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Protestant pupils from schools across Northern Ireland staged walkouts yesterday, in protest at the appointment of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness as Education Minister.

Protestant pupils from schools across Northern Ireland staged walkouts yesterday, in protest at the appointment of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness as Education Minister.

Classes of at least six schools were suspended after pupils walked out and, in one case, staged a march into Belfast city centre.

Teachers say they cannot physically prevent children leaving their classes or school buildings. They and trade union sources said they were worried about the safety aspects of children overflowing on to the streets and about politics being brought into the classroom in a particularly divisive way.

Mr McGuinness said he would not be deflected by the protests, which he claimed were coordinated by the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist party. The DUP said that, while they were not organising the protests, they supported the moves.

First Minister David Trimble sought to calm the situation by indicating that as Education Minister Mr McGuinness did not possess unilateral powers, and would have to produce policies in concert with colleagues on the new executive.

Pupils at some of the protests waved union jacks and Ulster flags, chanting: "We want Paisley" and singing Orange songs with lyrics such as "We're up to our necks in Fenian blood, surrender or you'll die." Many of those on the march exhibited not so much indignant protest but what looked suspiciously like elation at missing classes for the day. The DUP's Ian Paisley Junior said: "This idea that we manipulate children is just nonsense. They have genuine concerns and I'm glad they're expressing them in this very good manner. I'm more than happy to salute them for what they've done and to encourage them to keep up this protest."

Mr McGuinness commented: "I think, like the vast majority of their parents, the overwhelming majority of our schoolchildren are very supportive of the Good Friday Agreement. They are very focused on the need for change, they want to be part of change and they have played, I think, an important role this far. Our job is to stay focused. I have a serious responsibility to deal with the education brief. I'm not going to be deflected in any way by the protests which are taking place at the moment."

Mr Trimble said those encouraging the protests should think again, saying a minister could not have complete control over a particular area or operate independently.

He added: "There is a structure there that will provide balance and I think people should not be too concerned. They shouldn't allow those that are scare-mongering to do so."

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