Belfast Protestants agree to end protests against Catholic pupils

Opposing groups' leaders plead for peace at start of power-sharing period


LONDON - Protestant residents of a conflicted Belfast neighborhood have decided to end a 12-week-old protest that has forced Catholic schoolchildren to walk to their classes under the protection of riot squad police and military escorts.

The daily demonstrations and the scenes of young children and their parents becoming targets of screamed obscenities, stones, bricks and pipe bombs have focused international attention on the depths of community suspicions and hatreds as Northern Ireland seeks to end decades of sectarian violence.

Protestant residents of the Glenbryn housing project agreed Friday night to end the demonstrations after the direct intervention of David Trimble, the Protestant first minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and Mark Durkan, the body's Catholic deputy first minister.

The two men had expressed particular concern over the continuing impasse at a moment when the power-sharing legislature is taking up its functions after months of being suspended over an arms dispute.

An Irish Republican Army decision to begin disarming last month cleared the way for a resumption of the assembly, which is the centerpiece of the 1998 Northern Ireland peace accord.

Angry neighborhoods

The school dispute has set off repeated outbreaks of fire bombings and stone throwing in North Belfast, where Catholic neighborhoods, with their Irish flags and republican murals, abut Protestant ones, with their curbs painted in the red, white and blue of the Union Jack and their walls daubed in anti-Irish slogans.

"The decision will create a climate that will help them address the wider socioeconomic problems facing North Belfast," Trimble and Durkan said in a joint statement.

At issue has been the Catholic families' freedom to walk along several blocks in the Protestant Glenbryn community to get to the Holy Cross primary school.

Tighter security promised

The Protestants have contended that they were reacting to attacks and intimidation from residents in the adjoining Catholic Ardoyne neighborhood.

They said that they agreed to lift their protests after receiving assurances of increased policing and the installation of closed-circuit cameras at street corners.

The street demonstrations were carried out against a backdrop of growing Protestant disenchantment with the Northern Ireland peace agreement.

Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, has battled dissidents in his own party who argue that the accord has benefited Catholics more than it has them.

The party's 800-member ruling council has scheduled a showdown meeting Saturday in Belfast to challenge his decision this month to re-enter the government with Sinn Fein, the political ally of the IRA, while the clandestine guerrilla group remains armed.

Cautious optimism

Brendan Mailey of the Catholic parents' Right to Education Group greeted the announcement with relief and caution.

"We welcome this, but we will believe it when we are walking up the road and there's nobody there shouting abuse," he said.

Throughout the standoff in North Belfast, residents of the rival neighborhoods had refused to speak to one another, but there were predictions that the new accord might change that.

"The long-term solution is through dialogue, and it has got to happen," said Mark Coulter, a Protestant community worker.

Mailey pledged that "the parents will do whatever they have to do in repairing relationships between the two communities."

The Rev. Aidan Troy, chairman of Holy Cross' board of governors, has repeatedly expressed anguish at the daily confrontations outside his school. Troy coupled his expression of relief with one of wariness:

"There is a huge job within the two communities to try to reach the same way forward; otherwise it will not work," he said. "If we do not get engaged in some sort of basis to try to work out common grounds, it will only slip back into something awful."

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