Mark Steel: The heroic struggle to stop small girls attending school

'Maybe there should be an agreement that they only burn down the science block'
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The Independent Online

That's not bad going, for loyalists to be so off the scale they're denounced as wild and sick by Billy Hutchinson, who has almost certainly been called "Mad Dog" at some point. That's as if the leader of the Taliban said about you, "The trouble with him is he's a bit TOO Islamic for my liking".

But look what loyalism has become. After the First World War they ran guns to prevent home rule. In the Seventies they brought down Stormont. Now they heroically stop five-year-old girls from getting to PE.

No doubt they'll find an historic justification, perhaps claiming that Ulster was only saved in the first place when King William rode through on his white horse gallantly throwing fireworks at a reception class. And each morning, before they go off to the battlefield, does their leader stop for a tense moment before saying "So, good luck. And remember, some of these bastards have got Fuzzy-Felt – so be careful"?

So what a disturbed group they must be, to think this is normal behaviour. Presumably, if some of them have a kid themselves who doesn't want to join in, they shake their heads in confusion and say: "I don't understand it. We brought them up as best as we could with all our values, then one day I meet his headmaster and find out he hasn't been caught trying to burn the school down."

Yet even now statements are made like that of the local Democratic Unionist MP Nigel Dodds, who called for both sides to be given "breathing space to work out their dispute". As if there should be a compromise. Maybe there should be an agreement that they only burn down the science block.

Suddenly, people who have been yelling that there's no point in further talks on peace in general until the IRA surrenders its weapons are calling for "talks" to sort out these riots.

How would these talks go, then? Would a neutral observer start by saying softly: "Now, I understand you're both angry. You're annoyed because you feel the presence of a Catholic school somehow contaminates your Presbyterian purity. And you, on the other hand, are fed up because a bomb was exploded on your way to the school which, you claim, was especially frightening as you're five. Well, we're both going to have to exercise a little give and take here, aren't we?"

The issue puts into perspective the furore about IRA decommissioning of weapons. There was always a certain amount of nonsense about this. To start with, how would anyone know when they'd given them all up? Presumably the IRA would also have to hand over all the receipts. And some of their bombs were made of fertiliser. Would they have to give that up? If not, would Peter Robinson scream there could be no question of taking part in the assembly while IRA/Sinn Fein openly flouted the peace process by refusing to concrete over their allotments? Whatever they handed over wouldn't be enough. Eventually the Unionists would howl, "But they've still got their stationery. One of them paper clips could go in someone's eye".

Imagine if the IRA organised a riot similar to the current one, outside a Protestant school. Unionists would instantly declare the peace process at an end and demand the other 26 counties be handed back as well.

The one hopeful sign is that few Protestants seem to support the actions of the crowd, possibly because whereas the Orange Order could once provide most of the community with a modest house and a job, now they'd struggle to find you a flute. But for some the ideology lives on, that the less you've got, the more important it is to find someone with even less and blame everything on them. Though taking out your wrath on these girls is spectacular, even for loyalists. What must they be chanting out there? "Ulster says no to Papist Playdough"? "Noddy is a Proddy"?

And do they honestly think that God will be pleased with them, thinking: "Generally I like little children to be singing 'All Things Bright and Beautiful'. But on this occasion, as this lot will grow up to believe in a ritual called holy communion, I'm much happier that they're being pelted with fireworks. So, well done, the Red Hand of Ulster Association or whatever you're called." I just hope that, once the girls make it to their classroom, the teachers aren't like the ones I had at that age. Because if they'd seen anyone starting to run off when loyalist missiles came through the window, they'd have clapped their hands like thunder and yelled: "Ahem. The shower of rubble is a sign for me – it is NOT a sign for you."

Though the short-term solution may be to send the teachers out to face the protesters. They could stand in front of the howling, wait for a quiet moment and say: "It's your own time you're wasting, you know." Then the PE teacher could yell: "Why aren't you changed into your bowler hats and sashes?"

And if any reply that they haven't got them, make them all throw rocks in their underpants.

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