Loyalists promise not to harm girls on their way to school

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The Independent Online

Loyalists are expected to renew their protests this morning at the Holy Cross primary school in north Belfast.

But organisers insisted their demonstration would be peaceful and they pledged to keep it silent as the Catholic children made their way to the school. All sides hope there will be no repeat of the last week's events in Ardoyne Road, when terrified young girls ran the gauntlet of sectarian violence, including a blast-bomb explosion.

Behind-the-scenes talks continued at the weekend, ahead of tomorrow's meeting between the protesting residents and John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, although there was still no sign of direct talks between the divided communities.

Church leaders called for an end to the intimidation and one – the Reverend Harold Good of the Methodists– appealed for the protests to be called off.

But Anne Bill, spokeswoman for Concerned Residents of Upper Ardoyne, said the group wanted no trouble but noted that the issues which made people want to protest in the first place had not gone away. "They have seen that the only way they can get people to listen to them is still to protest," she said.

Protestant residents have complained that the root cause of the protests has been the erosion of their community because of government neglect and attacks by republicans from neighbouring streets.

The Northern Ireland Assembly is expected to debate a motion about the dispute, tabled by Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly this afternoon.

Last night, the North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds welcomed the protesters' plan to remain silent as "significant". Mr Dodds, a member of the Democratic Unionist Party, added: "If anyone harbours any thoughts of violence, they should stay away, in keeping with the publicly expressed wishes of the local community." Alban Maginness, of the SDLP, said: "Anything that de-escalates the nature and size of the loyalist protest is, in my view, very welcome indeed."

The chairman of the school governors, Father Aidan Troy, echoed their words and claimed the days ahead provided a great opportunity for both communities. "We must not forget the urgency of getting the children back to school in peace and quiet," he said.

Community and political leaders are currently considering proposals put forward by Mr Reid and the power-sharing executive on Friday.

* Colombia moved three alleged IRA members from a top security prison yesterday to avert the risk of them becoming victims of inmate violence, days after a right-wing paramilitary prisoner was killed in another jail. Niall Terence Connolly, Martin McCauley and James Monaghan, who face charges of training Marxist rebels in the South American nation, had been held near paramilitary inmates.