Deborah Orr: Don't blame these pathetic creatures

'The saga of Holy Cross Primary School has been the most self-destructive protest in the history of Northern Ireland'
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The Independent Online

Pity the sectarian rioters, as they lay waste to the corner of north Belfast they all call home, setting light to vehicles, injuring scores of police, vandalising primary schools and terrorising children. They may be frightening and they may be savage. But, more than anything, they are utterly pathetic.

Why? Because their resort to violence is the most accurate way in which they can communicate the ugliness and nihilism of their thoughts. Language is a useless skill to these humans, for in their hate they live beyond reason. And the most awful thing of all is that they are comfortable there.

These people cannot find it in themselves to move beyond their savage state, and want to stay locked in a pointless conflict that all but they have given up. Without it, they do not know themselves. Hate gives them an identity. If they let go of it, they fear they will have nothing, and be no one. The inside of their own lives is the only thing these empty, degraded people seem to be physically intimidated by.

This latest spate of violence points those truths up more than any other, more even than many of the much more heinous crimes of violence that have been perpetrated in the name of Catholics or in the name of Protestants. In its very tawdriness, this stand-off speaks volumes about the sectarian mind-set.

Once the lovers of hate could claim to be fighting for Ireland, or for Ulster. Now the political legitimacy of such claims has been smashed, these citizens of Europe find themselves watched by the world as they fight over a couple of hundred little girls and their walk to school.The saga of Holy Cross Primary School has been extraordinary. This latest rekindling of outrage, sparked by a school-gates clash between two mothers, is no less so.

The most humiliating, self-destructive protest ever to have been staged in the history of Northern Ireland began at the return to school after the summer holidays last year. The residents of a Protestant area of the upper Ardoyne claimed that they were suffering intimidation by the Catholics who lived nearby. By night, known members of sectarian groups were wreaking havoc on their homes. By day, said residents, the same sectarians were taunting the people who live on the Glenbryn Road by escorting children to school through the area.

They asked for security cameras and speed ramps to be put in their area, so they would be protected on their home ground. They also wanted shops to be introduced to the scrap of land, so that they would have even less reason to leave it. They also wanted the children who attended Holy Cross to use an alternative route to school, or take the bus.

In order to make these gains, they decided to picket the road to the school. The picket involved yelling verbal abuse at the children and parents, throwing urine-filled balloons and of excrement, spitting, and tossing pornographic pictures, stones, bottles, bangers, even a home-made blast bomb. They called this the Walk Of Shame.

The school was swathed in razor-wire and had pull-down shutters fitted to its windows to repel weekend vandalism raids. Police in riot gear lined the streets every day, as the children went to and from school. The operation cost £3m. Children became disturbed by their treatment, suffering sleepless nights, bad dreams, and were prescribed anti-depressants and given anxiety counselling.

The action by the Protestant residents began to attract international attention. But of course their message, such as it was, was lost in the crude spectacle of their repulsive protest. The school received a visit from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, letters of support from, among others, Hillary Clinton, and an invitation – post-11 September – to appear on an Oprah Winfrey chat special entitled "Terrorism: How Has It Affected Your Daily Life". A couple of the Catholic fathers, for good measure, declared themselves on hunger strike.

In a moment of reptilian clarity, it appears, the Protestants noticed that they were not winning the public relations war. This should have told them to give up. Instead, they sent some forged death threats from a fictitious Catholic group to elderly Protestant residents. And out in the grown-up world, the IRA decommissioned several bunkers full of weapons.

There was nothing for the Protestants to do except abandon the folly of their protest. But, as events this week have shown, their humiliations did not curb their feelings of resentment and hate. And why would they? Their own actions have revealed them as foolish as well as hateful, for the world to see.

As for the Catholic parents, only 11 pupils have been withdrawn from the school. The parents of many of the rest have insisted they should walk down the road despite the trauma it has visited on their children. They also ignored pleas from the the school governors for them to go to school using alternative methods.

They may not have behaved anything like as crassly as the Protestants, and right may, in principle, be on their side. But still they have chosen to engage in a fight that could have no winners, instead of turning their backs on it. In terms of propaganda, they may have played a blinder, but surely their victory is entirely pyrrhic. What have these trips taught their children, except what it is to be hated, and in all probability what it is to hate as well?

In this respect, it is not surprising that these final skirmishes in a long, hard, war should be fought over playground issues. Segregated schools have long been a forcing ground for religious hate. In the West of Scotland, where I was brought up, the segregated primary schools, or faith schools as we are to call them now – were awash with crude slogans of religious hatred.

The adults now using the children of the community to keep this battle alive have never abandoned the simplistic hatreds they formed before they'd lost their milk teeth. Some of the Protestant residents say the real issues are about jobs, housing and community facilities – and of course the feeling that the other side is getting more. What a pity they wasted millions in public money on their protests, on further degrading, instead of improving, their miserable environment.

This pattern is not unique to Belfast, nor to Northern Ireland. Strands and echoes can be seen in Bradford, in Israel, on the crime-ridden streets of London, in the ludicrous wrangles between India and Pakistan over a country that wishes to be ruled by neither of them.

In Ireland the peace process has been inspiring, an object lesson in pragmatism and give and take, an illustration of how peace makes everyone a winner. But for these people, clinging to the last vestiges of a way of life which put tribal loyalties above all else, hate is all that they feel they have ever owned.

This lot, in the Ardoyne, are acting out nothing more than the death throes of a violent history, reminding everyone else of what a smart decision it was to stop fighting. They need sympathy, rather than blame, help rather than punishment, if they are to be eased out of their inhuman mindset. They are poor, sad creatures, and there are poor sad creatures like them all around the world.