A catholic school whose pupils were forced to run a daily gauntlet of sectarian hatred last year is in danger of closing because of falling student numbers.
Fr. Aidan Troy, chairman of the board of governors of Holy Cross Girls Primary School in north Belfast, warned that the intake for the new academic year had fallen by a third.
Holy Cross was at the center of Loyalist protests when little Catholic girls, ranging in age from four to 11, had to be escorted to and from the school by armed soldiers and police officers. Television cameras last year captured disgusting scenes of adults throwing bags of urine at the youngsters and spitting on them and their parents as they made the twicedaily walk of hatred past the Loyalist Glenbryn area.
Fr. Troy, who arrived in Holy Cross parish just a few days before the protests began, said on Tuesday, August 27 that he was worried at recent shooting incidents in the area. He added that he was hopeful the school would be “recognized as separate to the current violence.” The area, like Short Strand in the east, has been the scene of unrelenting sectarian attacks in recent months.
“I think now that the guns have come out onto the streets, the temperature has been raised quite significantly. I know there was a young man injured in a shooting in Glenbryn earlier in the year but there is a feeling now that there has been a concerted effort to intimidate or to make life very, very difficult for the people in the Nationalist Alliance Avenue,” Fr. Troy said.
The situation has been further complicated by plans to build a “peace wall” which would force parents and pupils to take a more circuitous and dangerous route to Holy Cross. Glenbryn residents have demanded that the wall be built to separate them from the nearby Catholic Ardoyne and Alliance area.
Fr. Troy said the future of the school hinged on a decision by the public housing body, the Housing Executive, on whether or not to build the wall.
“It is my duty to at least give the school the chance of survival. If the wall is built, the school closes. It’s as simpie as that,” he said.
“Education has a context and the context at the moment is disastrous because this is the lowest level I have seen in my 13 months here by far. But I hope that at least the nearby Protestant Wheatfield school can return in peace and with best wishes and that Holy Cross Girls School and all the other schools in the area can return with minimum attention,” he added.
It was imperative for the school’s long-term survival, he said, that there was no trouble this year.
“With the drop in enrolment, we need a calm year to show parents who are nervous that we have conquered this problem and that the people of Glenbryn will stand aside from this,” he said.
Fr. Troy said the Holy Cross pupils had been failed by politicians at Assembly, Executive and Westminster level. “The local politicians on the ground have tried to calm the situation but we have had very little help from (British Prime Minister) Tony Blair or the (Democratic Unionist Party) MP for the area, Nigel Dodds. And now, after a number of studies in the area, there is only silence and the Executive has yet to take action. Politically we have no solution, so it would be nice if we, as church leaders, could work together.
“I am optimistic that we have the possibility of having a good year but there are worrying clouds there. With the recent constant violence, it is clear that if this year does not go well, we are not back to square one, we are a lot worse, we will have slipped into the gutter,” he warned.
Meanwhile, another Catholic school, the prestigious Dominican College at Fortwilliam in north Belfast, has been badly damaged in a sectarian arson attack. The college’s kitchen, storeroom and several other rooms were extensively fire-damaged when Loyalists struck around 12:20 a.m. on Tuesday, August 27.
Alban Maginness, SDLP Assembly member for the area, said, “There is absolutely no doubt that this has been a sectarian attack on this school. There was no reason for the attack on this school, other than pure sectarian hatred. The viciousness of this attack is emphasized by the fact that it took place at a time when the school was just about to reopen.” ♦