Catholic school children still fearful in North Belfast
BY LAURA FRIEL
A mother described her daughter's frantic call from her mobile phone as she fled from a loyalist mob last week. In the grounds of St. Gabriel's Catholic boys school, children from the nearby Our Lady of Mercy school for girls ran for cover. Fourteen-year-old Ciara O'Sullivan telephoned her parents after her school bus was attacked by a gang of around 50 pupils from Belfast Boys Model School in the Ballysillan area of North Belfast.
Ciara was only able to raise the alarm because on medical grounds she is allowed to bring a mobile phone to school. ``Ciara suffers from epilepsy'' says her mother, Bernie O'Sullivan. ``She was squealing down the phone that they were being attacked.'' With the windows of his bus smashed and the mob threatening further attack, the bus driver had driven towards the nearby St Gabriel's school, where he told his terrified young passengers to flee.
``Luckily there were some cleaning staff still on the school premises,'' says Bernie, `` and they took the girls inside.'' Some of pupils from Our Lady's had been injured by bricks, stones and flying glass as the windows of their bus were shattered. Many of the girls, all of secondary school age, were suffering from shock. ``They thought the mob would pursue them,'' says Bernie.
Trouble had flared after Translink, the bus operating company, withdrew its services from the Boys Model after buses travelling between the school and the loyalist estates of Ballygomartin, Shankill and Glencairn were vandalised by Model pupils.
It was the third serious sectarian attack on Catholic schoolchildren in North Belfast in a week. A month ago, pupils from the Boys Model attacked Our Lady's Catholic school, smashing windows and daubing the building with paint. They got into the building and tore up a number of Bibles.
A week later and Bernie O'Sullivan is one of a number of parents still anxious for her child's safety travelling to and from school. ``I kept Ciara away from school last week,'' says Bernie. ``She was afraid, we were all afraid.'' Monday morning and many parents are still too afraid to send their children back to school. Last week, in response to another one of their buses being damaged, Translink withdrew its service from Our Lady's school as well.
``They left our children even more vulnerable to attack,'' says Bernie. ``Many families felt they had no choice other than keeping their children at home.'' Other Catholic schools in the area have also been affected. Parents with children attending Our Lady's primary school and Holy Cross primary were confronted by a gang of pupils from the Boys Model when they went to collect their children.
``The RUC's attitude has been appalling,'' says another parent. ``When I approached one RUC officer, he said it was nothing to do with the RUC, it was an educational matter.'' A number of parents have complained of RUC indifference, even hostility towards their children.
In one incident, a man walking with Model pupils shouted abuse at Catholic parents as they collected their children from school. With a clenched fist salute he shouted ``up the UFF''. The RUC witnessed the incident but did nothing. ``The RUC said he was doing nothing wrong.''
In sharp contrast, parents with children attending local Catholic schools describe the RUC's attitude to their children as ``hostile''. The RUC's response to trouble instigated by pupils from the Boys Model is to further intimidate Catholic children. The sectarian ethos of the attacks is further compounded by the RUC's response.
``Our children are ordered to get back into their own areas,'' says a parent, ``as if they have no right to expect to travel to and from school safely because the school is situated in what is seen as a loyalist area.''
Jim Keith, principle of the Belfast Boys Model, defended his pupils, whom he claimed had been made a ``scapegoat for all the events of the past couple of weeks.'' The Boys had also been victims of numerous attacks, the headmaster claimed.