Security deal ends Belfast school standoff

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The Independent Online

Catholic schoolgirls in Ardoyne, north Belfast, will be able to walk to Holy Cross school tomorrow without a police guard for the first time in three months.

The long-running quarrel between loyalist and nationalist communities in Ardoyne, which has lead to some of the ugliest scenes of sectarianism in Northern Ireland for decades, ended on Friday night after a package of security measures was accepted by local residents.

The deal should enable pupils at the Holy Cross Girls' Primary School to get to their lessons without the help of the armed police cordon.

The suspension of the protests was greeted with widespread relief yesterday, and was welcomed by John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister. "Everyone in north Belfast is much happier today about the decision to suspend the protest," said Alban Maginness, the SDLP Assembly member for the area.

But there are fears the deal could collapse: the latest protests began at the start of the autumn term because talks over the summer had failed to reach a solution. Another round of talks is due to start this week.

Loyalist residents from the Protestant enclave of Glenbryn have staged angry demonstrations every school day since June, with a break for the summer holidays. The protests, allegedly orchestrated by local paramilitaries from the Ulster Defence Force, degenerated earlier this year into riots and pipe-bomb attacks on the police – then known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary – and neighbouring Catholic homes.

The loyalists claimed their demonstrations came after sporadic attacks by IRA sympathisers on local youths earlier this year, as part of a campaign of deliberate harassment by republicans trying to drive away Protestants.

But their intimidation, which drew near universal condemnation, ended at a community meeting in Glenbryn on Friday evening after further intervention from David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, and Mark Durkan, his SDLP deputy in the Assembly.

The deal involves security measures, including closed-circuit television, speed ramps and a 24-hour community policing unit. Nigel Dodds, the local Democratic Unionist MP, said: "One of the reasons we are in [this] mess is that these issues were ignored for far too long."

Community leaders were cautious, however, about whether or not a permanent solution had been found.

Mark Coulter, an influential Protestant community worker who has led the talks on behalf of the Glenbryn residents, also suggested a final deal was not yet found.

The protests, he said, "have been suspended to give the measures in place an opportunity to work, and particularly to get into dialogue with the nationalist community".

Philomena Flood, a spokeswoman for the Holy Cross parents, said: "It will be marvellous to see if the children, after five months, will now be able to walk up the road without anybody shouting at them and without anybody calling them names."