Protest at Catholic girls school a sign of ‘deeper malaise’ in Northern Ireland

Protest At Catholic Girls School A Sign Of ‘Deeper Malaise’ In Northern Ireland
Ulster Violence/ Holy Cross Primary Schoo, © PA Archive/PA Images
Share this article

By Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA

A loyalist protest at a Catholic girls school in north Belfast in 2001 was a sign of a “deeper malaise” in Northern Ireland according to Bertie Ahern, new archives show.

Officials who compiled documentation of efforts to resolve the protest also noted criticisms of DUP MP for Belfast North Nigel Dodds for his actions, and said that then First Minister David Trimble’s efforts were integral.


For months in 2001, locals at Holy Cross primary school in north Belfast stood outside the school as girls and parents walked in.

Bertie Ahern & Aidan Troy
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern talks with Father Aidan Troy, the Chairman of the Board of Governors of Holy Cross Primary School, Ardoyne, Northern Ireland, at Government buildings in Dublin (Chris Bacon/PA)

The protest began following a clash in June 2001 as a man collected his child.


“He was, according to nationalists, attacked by loyalists when he objected to them putting up paramilitary flags on the Ardoyne Road,” a briefing note stated.

Efforts to resolve the issue over the summer break failed, and the protests resumed in the autumn.

Loyalists said they were protesting because of attacks on their community, which they claimed were prompted by the larger Catholic population and wanted better security in the Ardoyne area as a result.

The note from November said: “The hate-filled aggression the loyalist protesters showed to the primary school girls and their families has disturbed, dismayed, and angered people throughout Northern Ireland and in the wider world beyond.”


On October 18th, 2001, Fr Aidan Troy had an hour-long meeting with Mr Ahern in which he discussed the impasse over the protest, which had been ongoing for months.

Fr Troy, parish priest of Ardoyne and chair of the board of governors of the Holy Cross school, said that there were around 20 people on both sides of the road in the morning, and 60-70 people on each side in the afternoon.

Ulster Violence/ Holy Cross Primary Schoo
An armed policeman by his vehicle, as security was tightened for the ongoing Loyalist protest against catholic schoolchildren going to Holy Cross Primary School in North Belfast (Paul Faith/PA)


“A hard core” of local residents took part in the protests and there was also a “sinister” loyalist paramilitary involvement, as well as people from other loyalist areas taking part, according to notes taken of the meeting.

Fr Troy said that some residents from Glenbryn, the protestant and loyalist area around the school, expressed support for his work, usually anonymously because of the “climate of fear” surrounding those who opposed the protest.

He said that some children and parents had been subjected to abuse including “balloons filled with dog excrement and urine, scalding water, stones and a blast-bomb”.

A blast bomb attack had taken place the day before the meeting on Alliance Avenue.


Of the 220 pupils at the school, 35 were stressed and receiving counselling and medication, and 10 had been transferred to other schools.

The priest expressed concern that the protest could “drag on indefinitely”, as it was a no-cost effort from protesters, and said this could put an “intolerable strain” on the school community.

He also said that there was “a leadership vacuum” in Glenbryn, which was an impediment to progress, and the referral to a committee of 14 people with “no common agenda” made it difficult to find a resolution.

Fr Troy also said that while he appreciated the work of police to protect children on the way to school, he was “unhappy” that protesters were allowed to be so close that they were able to “spit at the children” and was confused as to why armed soldiers faced towards the parents and children.

Mr Ahern said that the root causes of the protests were a “symptom of a deeper malaise within Northern Ireland”.

Catholic School Protests
Protestant residents protest behind an RUC cordon as they demonstrate against pupils and parents making their way to the Holy Cross Girls School in Belfast (John Giles/PA)

He offered to raise the issue during a meeting with the UK prime minister Tony Blair the next day, but said that genuine progress could only be achieved through engagement and agreement at local level.

Fergal Mythen, an Irish official in the Security Section of the Department of Foreign Affairs, compiled the notes of the meeting on October 22 2001.

In notes taken by the British Irish Intergovernmental Secretariat, dated November 21st, it said Fr Troy was “reasonably confident” of an end or suspension to the protest ahead of a meeting with Mr Trimble and deputy first minister Mark Durkan.

Mr Dodds, who was to chair a meeting of residents at Stormont, was noted as a sign of a possible deal, as “Dodds has sat on the loyalist fence on may issues and is not known to stick his neck out unduly”.

In a briefing dated November 26th, it called Mr Trimble and Mr Durkan’s meeting with Glenbryn residents the previous week, as well as a prompt follow-up letter “instrumental in creating the climate for a discontinuation of the protest”.

The material can be viewed in the National Archives in file 2023/53/67.

Read More

Message submitting... Thank you for waiting.

Want us to email you top stories each lunch time?

Download our Apps
© 2024, developed by Square1 and powered by