Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Is Holy Cross a place we really want to return to?

The Holy Cross dispute seared itself onto our TV screens 10 years ago. As another Belfast interface explodes into violence, Henry McDonald asks if we've learned anything at all

Watching your daughter act out a fictional version of a story you worked on just two years earlier is an uncanny experience. Especially if that story concerns young schoolchildren caught in a web of bigotry, hatred and intimidation.

My eldest daughter, Lauren, played the part of the younger child in a Catholic family embroiled in the Holy Cross dispute. Her first day at the north Belfast school involved having to run through a gauntlet of snarling loyalist demonstrators who were acting out the part of the real-life protesters from the nearby Glenbryn estate.

For a child who was immunised from all talk of Protestants/ Catholics, loyalists/republicans, unionists/nationalists in her home life, Lauren was suddenly on a learning curve about the sectarian geopolitics of Belfast.

Holy Cross - the movie - was shot two years after the real-life controversy erupted in the summer of 2001, when a fight between loyalists and republicans from Ardoyne spiralled out of control and lead to daily attempts by the former to blockade the road towards the primary school.

The BBC was so sensitive about the production that they transported Lauren and the rest of the cast and crew to Merseyside. The exterior scenes, particularly the riots and violent skirmishes between loyalists and the security forces, were filmed in St Helens, while the interior scenes of her home were shot on an industrial estate in Liverpool.

On my visits to see her during filming, memories kept flooding back of the real-time images from the dispute, which I covered for The Observer. In addition, ethical questions kept me awake at night, such as the wisdom of allowing a child brought up relatively free from sectarian attitudes to take part in a drama of such intensity.

In the end, the only conclusions I came to where a) that children are resilient and b) that sometime in the near future she would encounter the same kind of attitudes as those on display on that interface a decade ago.

In the actual story of Holy Cross, there were a number of lessons to be drawn for both communities. For the loyalists, their key aim and objective was unfulfilled.

Time and again, when you met residents of Glenbryn the same mantra was repeated over and over: 'We need a wall'. Those living in the run-down Protestant enclave thought that, by blocking the road, they could force the authorities to erect another of those misnomers - the peace barriers - and thus secure their future separate from Ardoyne.

One of the worst incidents during the siege of Holy Cross was the explosion at police and Army lines that almost killed a young Welsh soldier.

It is worth pointing out that the young man who sustained horrible injuries was the victim of a loyalist attack; that it was a pipe-bomber with connections to the UDA's 'C' company who nearly killed a member of the British armed forces.

Although the police came in for some criticism from nationalist quarters, it is a fact that large amounts of money and manpower were deployed (and rightly so) to ensure the children's basic human right to get to school. It is undeniable that many of these officers put their lives on the line to protect those children.

For loyalism, the targeting of young girls of primary school age in a protest that turned increasingly ugly proved to be yet another public relations disaster.

At the time, those central to the dispute on the loyalist side were oblivious to the damage they were inflicting on their own cause.

One local UDA leader, in a briefing in Tigers Bay, even tried to claim that the problem was caused by Catholics' unwillingness to put condoms on and stop reproducing.

On hearing this I thought I had entered a time-warp and was back in the early-1970s amid Paisleyites and Vanguard-types making sub-racist complaints about alleged Catholic over-breeding.

Eventually, saner heads amid the loyalists of the greater Shankill prevailed, with even Johnny Adair admitting to me that the blockade was doing loyalism no favours.

It is a fact that it was pressure from Adair that forced UDA members in Glenbryn to end the siege - which they did, ironically, just before Adair launched his own equally disastrous bid for control of the UDA.

With all this information in my head, it made it all the more unnerving to watch one of my own children play the part of a child being subjected to sectarian abuse and intimidation.

None of this has left any deep impact on Lauren's outlook on the world. She belongs to a generation that regards racism, sectarianism and homophobia as entirely wrong and unacceptable.

She was not marked in any way by her involvement in a film which was produced with great sensitivity and understanding for both sides.

Yet, as I write, we are witnessing renewed sectarian trouble on another interface closer to her east Belfast home. Violence erupted along the dividing-line between Short Strand and Newtownards Road, with police officers and locals injured.

The central lesson of the Holy Cross dispute is to guard against complacency.

Because there are a series of potential conflagrations dotted around divided Belfast which could flare up at any time.

The Holy Cross controversy started with a row at a lamp-post and a road-rage incident and became a worldwide news story, as well as the basis for one of the most disturbing dramas to come out of Northern Ireland.

The long term prevention strategy to ensure there are no more Holy Cross dramas in the future is to start to dismantling the sectarian architecture and mindset that has trapped generations.

The question is this: do those with a vested interest in maintaining their tribal power-bases really want to radically alter this society?

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