BY LAURA FRIEL
``I smelt the smoke and started to panic. I was crying, most in my class were crying.'' These are the words of an 11-year-old pupil of Our Lady of Mercy girls secondary school in North Belfast. The child was describing the latest in a spate of attacks against Catholic schools throughout the north.
Shortly after midday on Tuesday 29 September, two young unionists walked into the grounds of the Catholic school. The two men, described as around 18 years of age, were carrying cans of petrol. Neither man wore a mask. They poured petrol over cars belonging to teachers, smashing windows before setting the vehicles on fire.
The attack happened just moments before the children were due to break for lunch and in full view of many of the classrooms. Six cars were completely burnt out while a number of other vehicles were badly damaged.
This is the second similar attack on Our Lady of Mercy School within 20 months. In January 2002, a gang of armed unionists rampaged through the school grounds, smashing 17 vehicles, while an armed lookout stood at the school entrance. The presence of armed paramilitaries within the school complex created panic and fear amongst pupils and teachers.
Located in the unionist Ballysillan area of North Belfast, the Catholic girls' school is particularly vulnerable to continued attack. The school has taken a number of security measures, including the installation of CCTV. It is believed that the two assailants in the most recent incident were caught on camera.
Commenting, the school principal described the attack as a disgrace. ``This school has once again been subjected to unprovoked sectarian attacks,'' he said.
The attack on Our Lady of Mercy School came amid a series of serious sectarian attacks by unionist paramilitaries against Catholics schools, churches and homes throughout the Six Counties.
Since the beginning of the school term four weeks ago, there have been a series of attacks on Catholic schools. On 15 September, two devices were discovered and made safe at Catholic schools in Limavady and Dungiven. St Patrick's High School and St Mary's High School are less than ten miles apart. Both devices were found to contain explosives but no detonators.
Three days later, UDA bomb hoaxes closed five Catholic schools in a single day. Shortly after 1pm on Thursday 18 September, a caller using the UDA cover name Red Hand Defenders told a Belfast newsroom that bombs had been planted at Catholic schools.
St Comgall's High School in Larne was forced to close after a device with wires and batteries attached was discovered tied to the school gates. A controlled explosion was carried out after a similar package was discovered at Fortwilliam College. The college was one of four Catholic schools targeted in North Belfast.
St Gabriel's Boys school, Our Lady of Mercy School and Holy Cross Girls primary school were also forced to close after receiving similar bomb alerts. Two weeks earlier, Holy Cross had been forced to close after a device was discovered attached to the school gates just as pupils were preparing to return to school after the summer break.
For the pupils of Holy Cross, the sectarian attack against their school on the first day of term immediately provoked fears of a return to the abuse and violence of the unionist blockade of two years ago. For months, parents and pupils of Holy Cross ran the gauntlet of sectarian abuse and a barrage of bricks, bottles and pipe bombs as they attempted to walk the short distance to and from school.
Attacks on Catholic schools have taken place against the backdrop of increased sectarian attacks on Catholic churches and homes within the last six weeks. On Wednesday 10 September, unionists daubed sectarian slogans on St Mary's Catholic church in Glengormley. A few days later the local priest Fr Dan Whyte was told that his life was under threat from the UDA.
During the annual Cemetery Sunday commemoration in Carnmoney, around 200 unionists blew whistles and horns and shouted sectarian abuse at Catholics attending the graveside service. A section of the unionist crowd went on to riot, hijacking cars and erecting barricades.
Family seeks to exhume body
A few days earlier, Catholic graves at the cemetery had been desecrated. The attack followed a number of similar incidents over the summer. Plans to extend the graveyard have been opposed by the UDA, who have threatened to trash `Taig' graves. Systematic targeting of Catholic graves in Carnmoney cemetery have led to some families considering removing the remains of their relatives.
Two weeks ago, a widower described the devastation to himself and his young children following the desecration of the grave of his recently deceased wife. One Catholic family has already begun making arrangements for the remains of a relative to be removed. The grave has been attacked twice.
``To exhume a loved one and rebury them is a very traumatic thing to do,'' said Fr Whyte. ``It is not a thing you would do lightly. It is a very clear indication of just how horrible this situation is.''
Claims by Tommy Kirkham, a unionist councillor who publicly backed opposition to the cemetery two years ago, and Billy Hutchinson of the PUP that they were to meet Fr Whyte in an attempt to resolve the matter, came to nothing after the priest revealed that he had not been contacted.
``I haven't heard from either of them,'' Fr. Whyte told the Sunday Tribune. ``I don't know what is going down. I would like to ask them if they can guarantee the death threat will be removed and that the attacks stop.''
Meanwhile, the UUP member and local Newtownabbey councillor, Ivan Hunter, in his topsy-turvy world of unionist bigotry, continued to blame the victims of sectarian crime for their own victimisation.
Commenting on the unionist death threat against Fr Whyte, the attack on St Mary's Church, the desecration of graves and disruption of the service in Carnmoney, Hunter told an astonished television interviewer from the Politics Show that ``the Catholic community have to accept responsibility for this.
``They have to realise that they have created this situation and it's up to them to try and prevent it happening again,'' said Hunter. On a previous occasion the UUP councillor accused Fr Whyte of ``having an agenda'', which the unionist politician suggested was the reason why his life had been threatened.
Responding to outrage caused by his comments, Hunter later condemned both the desecration of Catholic graves and the threats against Fr Whyte. Sadly, entrenched bigotry of the kind displayed by Ivan Hunter is not easily dissuaded. The UUP councillor took the opportunity to repeat many of the comments that had sparked the earlier controversy.
``I have clearly come out against those within our community who have stoked the flames of sectarianism,'' said Hunter. In fact, the only group Hunter has `clearly come out against' has been the Catholic Church, which lends a certain ambiguity to this statement.
``Sectarianism is a problem facing all of us,'' he continued. ``I feel that there is a need for a wider debate on how all groups, including the Roman Catholic Church and other churches, have contributed to our problems.'' This curious statement is a fine example of what some might dub classic `Trimblese' - platitudes with a subliminal message to fellow unionists that it's still okay to blame Catholics.
Protestant schoolbus stoned
Meanwhile, some sections of the media, regarding the recent attack on Our Lady of Mercy School, were giving out a similar subliminal message. The attack at Our Lady's took place three days after an incident in which some nationalist school children threw stones at two buses carrying pupils >from the Protestant Girls Model School in North Belfast.
The attack was sectarian, totally unacceptable and a disgrace felt by the entire nationalist community. A number of the windows in the buses were smashed and its young passengers traumatised. ``I didn't know what to do, I just sat there and cried,'' said one 15-year-old passenger.
Such attacks are morally indefensible. Catholic schoolchildren had been under attack for weeks but that doesn't excuse the behaviour of a handful of nationalist youths. But equally, the despicable behaviour of a few nationalist schoolchildren cannot excuse or explain the actions of unionist paramilitaries and their systematic targeting of Catholic churches and schools in the last six weeks.
The `tit-for-tat' model
On Saturday 27 September, the Belfast Newsletter reported the attack on the Model School buses. The report was rightly indignant but despite ongoing attacks on Catholic schools, churches and homes, the Newsletter never once referred to the bus attack as a retaliatory `tit for tat' incident.
On Tuesday September 30, the Newsletter reported the unionist paramilitary attack of the day before at the Catholic Our Lady of Mercy School. A defining moment had been reached said the front page of the Newsletter ``in a series of tit for tat attacks on schools and school buses''.
In a front page article, the newspaper reported that ``cars were torched at a Roman Catholic school in Ballysillian, apparently in response to an attack on a bus carrying Protestant children on the Crumlin Road last Friday''.
The Newsletter went on to report complaints by Glenbryn residents of an ``inequality of police reaction'', according to North Belfast DUP MP Nigel Dodds.
``They compare and contrast what was done at Holy Cross, when there were dozens of police Land Rovers every day and the Chief Constable made it clear that whatever it would take would be provided,'' said Dodds.
Now if this kind of comment weren't so dangerous, it would be just plain silly. A handful of disreputable schoolboys throwing stones hardly compares to the day in day out, systematic sectarian violence by unionist paramilitaries and residents of Glenbryn that was witnessed at Holy Cross.
Nigel Dodds was speaking just hours after the unionist paramilitary attack at Our Lady of Mercy school but his focus remained on the schoolboy attack of three days ago. His only reference to the attack at the Catholic school is a criticism of the decision to temporarily reroute the Model Girls School bus.
``After what happened at Our Lady of Mercy School, the decision was taken to have the girls' [of the Protestant Model] buses go down the Antrim Road,'' said Dodds.
In another fine example of unionist doublespeak, Dodds continues: ``I have to say that this is a very dangerous sort of move because what that says to bully boys and people out to cause trouble is that they are winning.''
To reroute Protestant schoolchildren following an attack on a Catholic school makes little sense beyond fuelling the `tit-for-tat' propaganda of violent unionism. No one believed pupils from the Girls' Model were in danger of a commensurate paramilitary attack as endured by the pupils of Our Lady just hours before.
But for the `tit-for-tat' model to endure, unionist paranoia must be given greater coverage and consideration than the actual attack against a Catholic school. Because if the truth were ever fully revealed and the racist anti-Catholic nature of this despicable little state exposed, unionists might actually be called upon to change and the history of British occupation might be called into question.