'It can't go on like this. But I love the Ardoyne'

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There was an hour and a half to wait until the kids came out of Holy Cross School when I sat down with a couple of mothers on Friday afternoon. We were in a Roman Catholic community centre that was only a five-minute walk away, and the warmth of the tea and the chatter almost made you forget that Lisa Irvine and Linda Bowes were women under siege.

From where we were we couldn't see the street. What was happening outside? Were protesters preparing a violent send-off? Lisa and Linda didn't know, and they didn't want to find out until they had to.

"It can't go on like this," said Linda. "Every problem has a solution. And to find it people have to take some things they don't like. But we've already taken a lot in the last four months." Her businesslike exterior – she had just finished her morning's work as a legal secretary in the city centre – added an authority to her words.

Both Linda and Lisa are 34 and have nine-year-old daughters at Holy Cross. They had taken them to school for years, not realising that the Protestants they walked past and said good morning to could turn into the hate-filled protesters of recent months. Some of them, anyway. All because Holy Cross is unfortunate enough to find itself isolated in the Protestant part of the Ardoyne.

Of course it is not as simple as that. Things in Northern Ireland never are. Ardoyne is becoming more Catholic, and the Protestants feel under demographic threat – that life since the Peace Agreement has been much kinder to the Catholics, that their own are being left at the bottom of the heap.

The school run protest began in September. Parents and children were subjected to hails of abuse, scalding tea, and urine-filled balloons. A pipe bomb exploded. But the protest was called off for the last two weeks of term, and the Holy Cross families thought it was behind them. But when the new term started last week, a couple of incidents brought the protesters back on to the Ardoyne Road. Riots broke out at night.

On Thursday, Holy Cross closed. It was the only way to defuse tension. Friday, with the protest supposedly suspended, was a test. It was mercifully quiet. The rain helped, even if, to an outsider, it merely added another level of gloom to the area.

Home is home though. "I love the Ardoyne," Linda said. "My family is here." Had she lived in the area all her life? "We moved to Australia when I was little. It was lovely. We had a big garden, and for Christmas we were going to get a swimming pool. Then my Daddy said to my Mummy, would you like to go home for Christmas, and she said yes. That was that, and we never went back."

The clock on the wall had ticked round. It was time to collect the children. We walked up the Ardoyne Road, where you could tell when you crossed from one community into another because the drooping tricolours were replaced by drooping flags of St George. The houses on either side were 1950s semis with small front gardens. A white plastic classical figurine adorned one of them. Most people about were police and soldiers, their lines of armoured vehicles standing by.

Lisa and I walked on to the school, where the scene, apart from the camera crews, was much like any other at this time of day. The children were excited as they came out. Lisa collected Shannon and we walked back down the road. A woman protester on the other side was shouting at nobody in particular.

Some police were running up the road, in the opposite direction to us, towards a disturbance. We just kept going, heads down. What was Shannon going to do when she got home? "Watch TV." What about homework? "Haven't got any homework," she said, and she looked up and gave her mum a big smile.