Protesters stage new riot outside Holy Cross

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The Independent Online

Schoolgirls were once again caught up in violence in north Belfast yesterday as rioting and disruption erupted on the battered but recently quiet streets of Ardoyne.

Schoolgirls were once again caught up in violence in north Belfast yesterday as rioting and disruption erupted on the battered but recently quiet streets of Ardoyne.

A number of civilians and police officers were injured when Protestant and Catholic youths took to the streets in large gangs, hurling abuse and missiles at each other.

To general dismay, the disturbances reignited the bitter sectarian controversy over Holy Cross girls' primary school, where earlier this year loyalists staged a long-running protest against pupils entering a Protestant area.

Pupils were trapped inside the school for some time as protests were staged outside during the afternoon. The girls were later evacuated by a rear entrance by bus. The school will be closed today.

In another incident a Protestant pupil at another school was hurt when the bus he was travelling on was attacked. At least four police officers were injured, none of them seriously. Three people were treated for injuries from shotgun pellets.

The chairman of Holy Cross board of governors, Father Aidan Troy, declared afterwards: "I'd say we're worse than square one. I'd say that it's harder to come back from this type of thing now – but we've got to come back from it."

Protestants and Catholics each had contradictory versions of how the trouble started. Protestants claimed a wreath commemorating a Protestant taxi driver killed by local dissident republicans had been torn down. Catholics said that in recent days loyalists had become increasingly abusive towards children and their parents walking to the school.

Once the disturbances had reignited, hundreds of youths took to the streets. A police car was set alight by loyalists while Catholic rioters threw missiles, including fireworks, at police. Several dozen youths tried to overturn an Army jeep.

Intense efforts will be made today and over the weekend to calm the situation, to prevent a sustained protest outside Holy Cross breaking out again. The previous protests were suspended in November, to huge relief, after the authorities announced a large-scale social and economic regeneration scheme aimed at improving the district. The protests were considered to have done much damage to Northern Ireland's already tarnished image.

A local Sinn Fein councillor, Margaret McClenaghan, accused loyalists of "deliberately trying to raise sectarian tensions in north Belfast". She said: "Those responsible for these attacks and the blockade are clearly intent on raising sectarian tensions in the area."

Billy Hutchinson, of the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party, said people in the area were blaming parents. "Apparently Holy Cross parents were coming down the road when some young guy bumped into a woman," he said. "She took exception to this and called a group of men up. My understanding is they wrecked five cars and proceeded to try to wreck houses."

Alban Maginness, of the nationalist SDLP, said: "No one wants a return to the sickening scenes which became the norm last year at ... Holy Cross."

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