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Schools on the Frontline: Some staff and pupils during the Troubles still faced the enemy at the gates

Tough lesson: children at their school during the Troubles
Tough lesson: children at their school during the Troubles
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

The tears came as a surprise to Johnny Saunderson, the normally hard-bitten TV cameraman, as he revisited the derelict school where his ex-UDR father was murdered 45 years earlier.

The award-winning Fermanagh-born newsman, who has covered countless wars around the world, was overcome with emotion as he laid two flowers in what had been the school's kitchen, where the IRA cut his dad, George, down a year after he retired from the UDR.

"I have to be honest, that's the first time I've ever shed a tear in the 45 years since he was murdered," Johnny said.

The veteran lensman's appearance on the other side of the camera was for a powerful BBC Northern Ireland documentary on the impact of the Troubles on schools and their teachers and pupils.

The programme, Schools on the Frontline, not only focused on murders and headline-grabbing controversies, like the Holy Cross crisis, but it also showed chilling clips of innocent-looking children from both sides of the divide singing vicious sectarian songs.

Staff at one school in Belfast disclosed that they'd put up a target in their playground to give children something other than soldiers and police officers to throw missiles at during their lunchbreaks. Footage showed tiny children hurling bricks that were almost as big as they were.

Johnny Saunderson's father was shot and killed during the morning coffee break at the Earl of Erne Primary School in Teemore, where he was the principal, on April 10, 1974.

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The producers who brought Johnny back from his base in Austria also showed him black-and-white archive footage of his father in happier times as he celebrated a mock wedding in Fermanagh.

"That's exactly how I remember him, it's like yesterday," said Johnny.

Struggling with his grief, Johnny pointed to the very spot where his father was sprayed with bullets before the IRA killers shot him again with his own handgun.

Holy Cross pupils during the loyalist protest
Holy Cross pupils during the loyalist protest

"That's where my father's body lay. That's where they gunned him down, right there before they walked away.

"My mother stood crying over there."

Johnny said the bitterness in the aftermath of the murder had dissipated down the years, even though no one had ever been charged with the killing.

"I don't like what the IRA did to my father, but I understand it," he added.

Johnny was one of a number of people whose stories are featured in the documentary that painted a bleak picture of the pressures facing teachers and pupils during the height of the Troubles.

The most infamous crisis in education came in 2001/2002, when loyalists staged protests as girls from the Holy Cross school in Ardoyne walked to their classes with their parents in the midst of vile abuse, threats and, on one occasion, a pipebomb.

Betty Orr former principal of Edenbrooke Primary
Betty Orr former principal of Edenbrooke Primary

Archive film showed terrified youngsters crying as the loyalists screamed sectarian insults at them, claiming their action was in response to a Catholic parent trying to knock a Protestant from a ladder as he was putting up a flag on the Ardoyne Road.

Principal Anne Tanney, who revealed she received a death threat, said: "It was important that we kept going. We told the children it wasn't their problem; that they were caught in the middle of an adult and societal problem."

The loyalists were roundly condemned by world leaders, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said the Holy Cross children were "pawns".

The shocking impact of the Troubles on the nearby Shankill area, especially during an internal loyalist feud in 1993, was addressed by Betty Orr, the former headteacher of Edenbrooke Primary School. "That was something else," she said.

Betty's pupils were among hundreds of UVF families in the area who were forced out of the lower Shankill by the UDA.

The hatred within the Shankill, said Betty, was far worse than it had ever been for the IRA and her children "went through hell".

"There was an awful lot of violence within the school and one child shouted across the class, 'Your father murdered my father'. In that class, we had five teachers trying to get any sort of control.

"It was absolutely shattering," she added.

At the start of Betty's career, she taught in Finiston Primary School on the Oldpark Road, where soldiers were once billeted.

She recalled how, one morning in 1973, staff had to evacuate 470 children from the assembly hall after an IRA attack.

"It was the first time a Russian-made mortar was ever fired in Northern Ireland," she told me. "And it landed in a school."

She also said that, after a young man was shot dead, his brother arrived in school wearing his brother's jacket which still had a hole left in it by the bullet.

In Andersonstown, Brian Holmes talked of the death of his friend from their time at Holy Child Primary School, Frank McGuinness, on the morning of the introduction of internment in August 1971.

Brian said he was standing with Frank when he was shot by paratroopers, but he said his friend wasn't involved in rioting.

"He was a terrible, terrible colour," said Brian, who got a passing car to take 17-year-old Frank to their old school, which was the heart of the Andersonstown community, but the promising young artist was declared dead by a doctor and a priest said the last rites.

Former boxer Eamon McAuley was in class at the Holy Cross boys' school when a bomb rocked the Ardoyne area in 1977.

The loyalist bomb was aimed at an IRA funeral and wrecked his father's car, but miraculously he survived.

However, two soldiers were killed and a classmate started to scream. His father had been shot dead by loyalists in front of him a few weeks earlier.

Eamon, who went on to win an ABA boxing title by knocking out a British Army champion, said that, in 1992, one of his teachers, Cyril Murray, was murdered after his retirement by loyalists, who admitted they'd got the wrong man.

In Fermanagh, school bus driver Ernie Wilson, a UDR soldier, and school pupils had a narrow escape after an IRA bomb wrecked his vehicle in Lisnaskea as he drove children to their classes in June 1988.

No one was killed, but schoolgirl Gillian Latimer was critically injured and Ernie, who'd known that he was under a death threat, received a bravery award for resuscitating her. "I gathered her up in my arms and I got her across the back seat. I got a hold of her skirt and stuck her arm into it to keep it from falling off."

The documentary didn't mention that a youthful Arlene Foster who would go on to lead the DUP, was also on the bus.

Ernie's son, James, who had searched the vehicle that morning for explosives, as he usually did, was to take his own life, because he blamed himself for not spotting the bomb.

In Londonderry in September 1971, 14-year-old Annette McGavigan was shot in the back of the head by the Army during clashes in the Bogside, as she reportedly collected rubber bullets with the intention of taking them to an art class in her school, St Cecilia's College.

Annette, who's the subject of a mural near Free Derry corner, has been described by her sister, May, as an angel and her brother, Martin, said that the family still have the blood-stained plimsolls and school uniform she was wearing on the day she was killed.

"There's a part of us that we will never get back," said Martin.

In Belfast, the stark realities of life in a school in what was regarded as a loyalist paramilitary hotbed, like Ballysillan, were underlined by the headmaster of the local primary school, Adrian Thompson, who said: "People didn't come to Ballysillan. As far as the Belfast Education and Library Board and the Department of Education were concerned, they didn't think Ballysillan existed."

Adrian revealed that diagnostic tests on the pupils in the upper school showed that 49 out of 100 children had "some form of special needs" that needed to be addressed.

He said the mothers of his pupils were the family members who were working, while some of their unemployed menfolk joined paramilitary organisations, seeing them as a way of getting money from armed robberies.

Schools were sanctuaries away from the Troubles, said Adrian, who added: "Children were coming to school with greater needs than the need to learn."

The release of prisoners as part of the Good Friday Agreement added a new dimension. The men who were coming back home were strangers to their families, he said, and they had no jobs.

The ex-prisoners were vying for either power, or resources, which was what led to loyalist feuding, claimed Adrian, who went on: "It was just a case of a power-base, who wants to be in charge, who wants to be the kingmaker, who wants to be the main man. And it's still happening.

"We don't talk about it very much. But it's still there.

"It's a very worrying situation, because I don't think it would be tolerated anywhere else in the British Isles."

The BBC NI programme repeated statistics that found boys from working-class Protestant backgrounds continue to underachieve in Northern Ireland's education system.

But the documentary ended on a more positive note, as it turned the spotlight on the success of the integrated Lagan College in south Belfast.

One of its founders, Anne Odling-Smee, said she lost a daughter in a house fire after the electricity was turned off during the Ulster Workers' Council strike in 1974.

She said she and like-minded people felt, in 1981, that it was important to bring children in Northern Ireland together in an all-ability integrated school in a challenge to sectarianism and bigotry.

"We broke all the rules," said Anne, who added that it was important that children were able to be who they were and express who they were in informed discussions.

"We really are supposed to be a Christian country. And I think, if Christ came, he might just turn around and go away again. But he could come to some of our schools, because otherwise he would have to go to two schools."

Schools on the Frontline, BBC One Northern Ireland, Monday, 9pm

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