IRA Ceasefire: Children's hopes reflect the sectarian divide: Catholic primary school pupils are more optimistic about the future than Protestants

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ONLY ONE boy in the class of 10- and 11-year-olds thought the ceasefire would last. 'I want it to last,' he said. 'You get sick of all the killing.'

The dark-haired girl at the back said she wished that the Ulster Volunteer Force and the IRA would be friends and then immediately dissolved into embarrassed giggles as her classmates scorned the very notion.

Two optimists in a class of 20 children. Two years ago, Belvoir Park Primary School in south- east Belfast was wrecked by an IRA bomb. The terrorists' main target was a forensic laboratory behind the school. No one was hurt by the evening explosion but the school and surrounding houses were devastated.

The school has just finished repairs: 250 of its windows were shattered. A few children in this class suffered the trauma of seeing both their school and homes violated by terrorist violence.

Then there is the litany of IRA atrocities the class can communally recite, including four attacks on the local pub. Each child seems to have his or her own personal Ulster horror story to recount.

'My uncle was killed by terrorists the last time the IRA called a ceasefire,' one girl said. 'My gran thinks this ceasefire is something to celebrate, but I think she is wrong to think this is peace.'

A classmate said his uncle's funeral procession had been delayed on Wednesday by the national celebrations. 'I don't understand what they are celebrating. They're the ones who planted the bombs.'

'They're just buying time,' said his friend knowingly. 'It's just a chance for them to think of something else to do.'

'We just don't like Taigs (Catholics),' a voice suddenly piped up to widespread approval. It belonged to the professed believer in the ceasefire.

On this first day back at school, the first day after the ceasefire announcement, there seemed no shortage of bravado. One boy said his brother would beat any Catholic he met, while another pupil said he had gone off his cousin because he was dating a Catholic. No one admitted to having a Catholic in the family and only one girl had a Catholic friend. 'Belvoir is 90 per cent Protestant,' said one boy. 'We like it like that.' Belvoir, which serves an estate of private and public housing, is linked with the Holy Rosary Catholic Primary just a mile away by the cross-community Education for Mutual Understanding (EMU) scheme, which tries to foster better relations and understanding between the communities.

Ian McBurney, Belvoir's deputy head, says EMU is limited and that integration of Catholic and Protestant schools is the real solution to sectarianism. 'But the Catholic hierarchy are against that,' he said. 'It's not our children's fault that they don't know Catholics. To be honest, I don't have many Catholic friends either.'

At Holy Rosary the mood was wholly different, the pupils were happy with the ceasefire. 'There are going to be more jobs,' said Susan, 10. 'Lots of people were too scared before to come to Northern Ireland because of the violence but not now.' She and five schoolmates believe the ceasefire will last. If it doesn't loyalist gunmen will be blamed.

The pupils fear a backlash. 'They have said that there will be a civil war,' said Patrick, 11. His friend asks what's the difference, there is civil war already.

The predominantly working- class Holy Rosary is sited in a more mixed area than the more affluent Belvoir. The children seem to have Protestant friends. Susan says her babysitter is Protestant.

But mixed areas have their own pressures. 'We are one of four Catholic families in this street,' said one boy. 'There are lots of kneecappings and they really worry me.'

Julie Rogers, Holy Rosary's EMU co-ordinator, does not believe integrating schools would bring an end to sectarian violence. Holy Rosary teaches self- respect and respect for other traditions and denominations. No school would encourage children towards sectarianism, she said.