Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 10 September 2001 (continued)

1.00 pm

We have seen people who have been engaged in taking the blood of innocent people coming to speak about education rights and the rights of children. I have a list of people - schoolteachers, principals and school bus drivers - who have been murdered by IRA/Sinn Féin, and the Minister of Education and his colleagues condoned it and egged them on, and indeed, in many cases, took park in murders. Look at the case of Ronald Graham who was murdered in 1981. That case involved a 13-year-old who was recruited by a teacher in IRA/ Sinn Féin. In other cases, teachers were murdered in front of their children. George Saunderson was shot at the primary school in Teemore in front of the children and kitchen staff.

This shows the type of people who are now lecturing us about the rights of children. Let me make it absolutely clear that I oppose the exploitation of children. I do not believe that children should be exploited for political purposes. I do not think that they should be abused. I do not think that any of us want any type of violence - we have condemned that. Let us be very clear who is doing the exploiting. As was stated in the 'Daily Telegraph' the other day:

"What part was played by Gerry Kelly, the local Sinn Féin representative and IRA bomber, who was yesterday fulminating against the Protestants?"

Who persuaded people not to take the alternative route that was advised by the local school headmaster, the board of governors, the teachers, 'The Irish News' editorial, the 'News Letter' and others to allow a cooling-off period? They are always lecturing us about the merits of alternative routes. Why was it that that advice was ignored at the behest of IRA/Sinn Féin? What has its role been in ensuring that this problem has been exacerbated, agitated and exploited? IRA/Sinn Féin are up to their necks in ensuring that this problem continues, rather than trying to get it solved. I commend everybody in north Belfast - community workers, clergy and politicians on the ground - who are genuinely trying to find a way forward in very difficult circumstances.

People have referred to underlying reasons: there are many. However, if this were a purely sectarian "hatefest", as the SDLP and others have been talking about, there are many ways in which schools could be blocked, and many things that people could do. This is a community that has suffered at the hands of IRA/Sinn Féin for years. Their concerns, injustices and inequities have been ignored by the media, who are now up there in their thousands. For months during the summer, when the Protestant community and others were seeking talks and demanding that talks should take place, the media were absent. The Protestant community were rebuffed by those who said "Oh no, we do not want to listen to all the issues". We have to try to find a way forward - not do what Sinn Féin does - [Interruption].

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Member's time is up

Mrs E Bell:

The start of the new term at Holy Cross Primary School was a sad and graphic example of a very violent type of physical and mental child abuse. Last week we saw a sinister development with children being used as political pawns to highlight grievances and concerns. No apparent thought was given as to how the awful scenes of hatred, stone-throwing, bottle-throwing - not to mention the pipe bombs - would affect the children and linger with them for a long time.

North Belfast, as other Members have said, has been an anxious area for a long time. I remember working in Ardoyne during the troubles, and it was dreadful. However, there was a sense of community, but that now seems to have been lost.

Many children have already been prescribed all types of medical treatment for anxiety. It is horrible to think how much more diazepam, or Valium, has been prescribed for those children. We saw the children walking up to their school, being taunted, experiencing all types of violence, and having to be guided to school by terrorised and often frightened parents, riot police in full gear, and fully armed soldiers. Remember, we are talking about four-year-olds and five-year-olds.

Staff and auxiliary workers have had to keep the school open. They must have been feeling intimidated and worried about their responsibility to the pupils. It was terrible this morning to listen to a snippet of a television interview with Dr Tan, a local GP. He expressed fully and clearly his concerns at having to prescribe sedatives because of the situation.

The situation at Wheatfield, while less violent and not as graphic, is still untenable. Those issues should also be addressed because those children have been involved in completely unacceptable situations.

Army and RUC personnel have been given a terrible assignment that should never have been necessary - that of protecting, facilitating and guiding four-year-olds and five-year-olds at the start of their educational experience. Are we really, as citizens of Northern Ireland, losing all sense of propriety and rationality in our apparently crazed desire to achieve our own interests and aims at the expense of some of the most vulnerable in our society, our primary school children? Are we going to start on the nursery schools next?

It is to be hoped that all concerned in the two main areas will take up the Secretary of State's offer of negotiations with open minds and no preconditions. Surely the church leaders must also be listened to, as well as the community workers who have done a wonderful job in trying to help the parents and all concerned.

Everyone must be determined to engage in principled compromise so that last week's scenes will never be repeated. No concern or grievance can be worth further violence, greater intimidation, or even worse, death, as happened last week, to anyone, let alone children. Worst of all, no such pattern of behaviour has ever ended in agreement. Unfortunately, Holy Cross and Wheatfield are not the only schools affected by this wave of hatred and intolerance. There are already rumblings of potential trouble throughout many other parts of Belfast.

On behalf of the Alliance Party, I wish to put on record our sincerest appreciation and our deepest gratitude to Mrs Tanney and her teaching and ancillary staff. I also thank Father Troy and the board of governors for keeping the situation as normal as possible for the children and their parents, and for keeping the curriculum going.

I also thank the Army and the RUC, who have done an excellent job in horrifically sensitive circumstances, and the little children for their bravery in the face of such frightening so-called protest. Let us hope that they can continue their education with safe passage in a secure atmosphere, and that the horrors of the last week can be put to the backs of their minds. Unfortunately, it may well be impossible to forget those horrors completely. Is that not a dreadful indictment of us all?

We must not forget that the basic element to be addressed in this situation is fear. The fear of the children, the fear of the parents, the fear of both communities, fears for the present and fears for the future. If we do not address those fears in all their complexities, nothing but further violence can result.

I hope and pray that the children will have only dim and distant memories of their experience.

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Member's time is up.

Mr Agnew:

On my way to the House this morning I thought to myself that it would be nice if we were able to speak in moderate tones about the terrible events of last week, and how sorry we were that all of this had happened. Then we come here and hear so many dishonest statements by Sinn Féin about the situation in Ardoyne.

Strangely enough, we are told that most of the damage is being done to the Nationalist and Roman Catholic community. There is not one person on this side of the House who would not decry any such activities. The truth of the matter, however, is something entirely different. All the violence that we have seen in north Belfast in June, July and August has come from one source. It has all been highly orchestrated and organised. That is a fact.

During the past week we have seen the Protestant community in upper Ardoyne being demonised and made out to be some sort of monsters because of what has been happening in their area. Let me make it clear. In front of me I have 10 pages of incidents in the Twaddell Avenue area alone. These incidents did not happen over the past two or three weeks or months; they go back to the 1970s. These pages have been kept by a resident of Twaddell Avenue. They represent a catalogue of incidents that have been visited on her home and those of her neighbours over the past 25 years, including petrol bombings, riots, and broken windows. Why has that been forgotten? For purely political reasons. We have to describe today as a sad day, and, as a Protestant I have not been happy with the events of the past week. I have seen a good deal happen in this society. Last Monday morning I stood alongside Billy Hutchinson and heard him being threatened by some of those coming up from Ardoyne.

What we saw last Monday morning was a parade of Provos into a Protestant area, and that has been forgotten. More Provos have walked up Ardoyne Road every morning, taking children to school, than have school children. That is a fact, but we still hear nonsense from these people.

None of us is happy about the violence and protests, because such activity is largely self-defeating. Nevertheless, they have taken place because people from that community have been forgotten and their grievances ignored. It has been forgotten that they cannot go to the post office to collect their pension; or to the library in Ardoyne; or to the shops to buy groceries. Those are legitimate grievances. They cannot walk down the main arterial route, yet others can walk through a Protestant area.

Why are people walking from upper Ligoniel, past the back entrance to the school, and gathering at the Ardoyne shops to walk up to the front entrance? Every morning these people come into the area for one reason alone: to intimidate and antagonise a Protestant community. Members of that community have no objection to school children's going to school; around a dozen children have been using the front entrance to the school for years. The others have been using the rear entrance, which is handy for car parking and so on. For the large part, these points have been ignored.

Let there be no mistake that these activities have been orchestrated by Provisional Sinn Féin. Why? We must record the simple answer and call a spade a spade: it is all about ethnic cleansing. They want the Prods out of upper Ardoyne, and they want those houses for their own people. It is not a coincidence that this is happening throughout north Belfast.

It is Protestant homes that are being attacked and are lying empty in the Tigers Bay and White City areas. It is Protestant, not Roman Catholic, homes that are being visited and bombed as part of this violence. The evidence is there for everyone to see. Last week the tragic death of a young boy took place. On the previous night three homes in the Whitewell Road area were damaged by Republican mobs from the Longlands area.

The Protestant people in isolated communities in north Belfast have been under constant attack for some time. Those attacks have been cleverly orchestrated as part of what I suggest is an insidious plan to ethnically cleanse the Protestant community from parts of north Belfast. That community suffers the same social and economic problems as the Roman Catholic community. However, this community has, for the large part, been forgotten because its suffering is regarded as if it were part of something sectarian. It is nothing of the sort.

Mr B Hutchinson:

I support the amendment in the name of Danny Kennedy. Problems exist in schools across north Belfast, but Members are focusing on Holy Cross Primary School today. I remind Members that the problem did not start last week; it started on 19 June. It seems that people do not realise that.

It sometimes sickens me to listen to MLAs who, having merely watched events on television rather than seeing them at first hand, come here with their written speeches and tell us all about it. I have been in that area every day and night for over 12 weeks. On 19 June a parent carried out an attack on people in this community. When he returned with others in his car to continue the attack, and when parents left their children in the street, it was Protestant women who took the Catholic children back into the school for their own safety. That is a fact that people should remember.

We could quote story after story, and I am sure that Sinn Féin Members could do likewise, but that would not resolve the problem. Irrespective of whether the SDLP believes this to be a plot against all Catholics, if Protestants wanted to stop children from going to Catholic schools, they need only move 50 yards to the right. On the Crumlin Road they will find the Little Flower, St Gabriel's and Our Lady of Mercy schools.

All of those schools have continued to operate. None of them have been involved in stoppages, blockages or pickets. They have been allowed to go on as normal. I am sure that the other MLAs in North Belfast, not just me, have at some time spoken to the principals of those schools - probably with the exception of the Little Flower - about the behaviour of some of the secondary school pupils or their parents. Since I have been an elected representative I have had those discussions.

1.15 pm

Members must focus on the problem. Some adults accompanying the children to Holy Cross Primary School are acting in a sectarian manner; physical and verbal abuse have been doled out. The two communities must get into dialogue to resolve the problem.

The Education Minister is in the House today. Members should probably be talking about post-primary education rather than Holy Cross Primary School, but unfortunately they are not. If there is anything to be learned about pickets of schools, Sinn Féin can teach us a lesson or two. Do Members remember the Pushkin Prize and a school in Armagh being picketed?

What will happen when members of the new Police Service of Northern Ireland are invited into Catholic schools by the Catholic Church? How many pickets will there be then on Catholic schools? How many Catholic children and their parents will be prevented from going to school?

I stood on the Ardoyne Road in June and saw Nationalists prevent a group of Travelling children who wanted to get to school from doing so. Sky television captured those pictures. People who had the luxury of watching Sky television that day told me that the events were not covered. One must ask why people capture what they do on television.

There is a case in Galway where pupils or their parents do not want Travelling people in their school, but I do not hear too many people complaining about that. I have not seen many members of Sinn Féin or the SDLP from up here rushing down to support those Travellers. That is racist. But of course it is only racist or sectarian when it comes from this community.

Members, political leaders and community leaders in Ardoyne need to recognise the sectarianism that exists. Until that is recognised, the problem will never be solved. The people in Glenbryn have a legitimate case which should be heard, as do the people in Ardoyne who walk their children to school. However, it is the two communities that need to talk this out and nobody should stand in the way of that dialogue. For 12 weeks the communities have been unable to do this. Political leaders must encourage the two communities to sit down and have dialogue. That is the only way forward.

It is said that the core issue is about the children not getting to school. That might be the core issue for the Nationalist community; it is not the issue in Glenbryn. The issue in Glenbryn is that there are adults - not parents - accompanying those children to school who have prevented people in that area from going about their daily lives.

Ms Morrice:

I rise with a feeling of terrible shame. That shame is not based on how the world has watched the scenes that have taken place in north Belfast over the past week. Rather, it is based on the obvious fact that we as a people, as politicians, as mothers and fathers and as a society have not done enough for our children. Mixed with my shame is an incredible sense of responsibility for what has gone on. Now more than ever, Members must redouble their efforts to bring Northern Ireland to its sanity. If they do not, they condemn another generation and another and another to exactly what we have suffered - hatred, bigotry, violence, bloodshed, anger, suspicion, and sectarianism. The Assembly cannot let that happen. Politicians must stand together. We must speak out. We must learn from each other, understand and deal with this together.

We all know that dialogue holds the key. The process of dialogue that was initiated over the summer was an important beginning. However, as Billy Hutchinson and others have said, that process must be given the space to work, and it needs to happen fast. The House welcomes the fact that it will start again this week.

Media coverage has been referred to. It is essential to recognise that media coverage can distort the way we are. This matter must be dealt with at community level and through the political and community representatives, not through cameras and microphones. The local com­munity and the people at the grass roots are what matter. We have been trying to contact them to find out whom they want as their representatives to get the dialogue going. That is essential.

It is important that we address the issues of economic and social problems, deprivation and poverty. However, we must also address, as a matter of urgency, the issue of sectarianism, which is rife throughout our society.

In July this year the Women's Coalition put forward a proposal to the Secretary of State recommending the creation of a commission on sectarian violence. We have a list of aims and objectives for the commission. These are to examine the frequency and nature of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland and the existing approaches by statutory agencies, including the police, and the range of community and voluntary organisations, to the violence.

We must explore the development of dynamics at interface areas and pay particular attention to local practices that increase tensions, such as graffiti and flags, and the issues relating to areas where young people gather. We must explore the effectiveness of community relations and see how well cross-community projects in interface areas are working. We must examine the differences between sectarian violence in rural areas and sectarian violence in urban areas. We must look at best practice in peace building and community relations and offer a broad strategic overview for dealing with communal violence and promoting peace building.

The situation in north Belfast has highlighted the need to get to grips with sectarianism and incidents of violence. We do not believe that sectarian violence has to be an inevitable part of life in Northern Ireland. There is no acceptable level of violence. It can be tackled, it must be tackled, and it must be reduced.

We accept that it is a complex and difficult issue for our society, but it must be addressed for the sake of those living in fear. A commission would explore those issues -

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Member's time is up.

Mr McCartney:

I have not the slightest hesitation in condemning the blockade of children attempting to attend Holy Cross Primary School. It is unacceptable and it is wrong. However, I think that we should look at the underlying causes.

In the late 1940s and in the 1950s I walked every day from the lower Shankill through the heart of the lower Falls to Grosvenor High School behind the Royal Victoria Hospital. At the same time boys attending St Malachy's got off the bus at the Falls Road end of Dover Street. They walked up Dover Street across the lower Shankill and made their way up Denmark Street to St Malachy's. In neither case were any of them interfered with, and I have no recollection of any difficulty.

From 1962 to 1969 I lived in a housing estate in Dunmurry. My next door neighbours were a Catholic family. I could not have had better neighbours; they took my children to school from time to time, and I took theirs.

However, as a result of the so-called peace process, the community is more bitterly divided than at any other time. The bogus peace process has not brought peace; it has segregated and divided the communities into their respective ghettos and has created small enclaves of Protestants and Catholics who are under pressure from the dominant group to which they are adjacent.

Ms McWilliams:

We grew up together.

Mr McCartney:

Yes, we did all grow up together. We grew up together in a better place than Northern Ireland is today. We grew up in a less vicious, a less sectarian, a less divided place. Although I support, as everyone must, the right of school children to have access to their place of education, I deplore the nauseating hypocrisy of Gerry Kelly. Gerry Kelly, who murdered people, who murdered an anaesthetist, who placed and who helped to place bombs where they would go off indiscriminately - perhaps murdering children - represents and has been part of an organisation that has orphaned and widowed hundreds of people. That he should come here and prattle about the rights of children - a right that everyone acknowledges - must be the height of hypocrisy.

We have Mr Alban Maginness talking about the core issue. The core issue is the process that the people of the Protestant Unionist community recognise is directed towards a transitional arrangement for a united Ireland. They have become fearful for their future. In many areas they are being subjected to Nationalist triumphalism and are reacting as all fearful people do.

Something has to be done about the underlying causes that produce the terrible symptoms that have manifested themselves in the events around Holy Cross Primary School. However, that is not the issue. The issue is the so-called peace process that indicates the cynicism of both Governments. The Irish Government want to achieve a united Ireland and the British Government want to offload a part of the United Kingdom that has become difficult to manage. There has been prattle about what the so-called peace process has delivered. It has delivered nothing but division and increasing bitterness. Yes, there are jobs for many people, such as the Women's Coalition, which witters on about lofty sentiments that have absolutely no connection with people's real fears.

We have to stop the Holy Cross Primary School situation and we have to do something about violent people such as Gerry Kelly and those on the Loyalist side who dominate those communities and who use children for their own purposes.

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Member's time is up.

Mr McLaughlin:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I support the motion. I welcome Robert McCartney's forthright statement that the blockade of Holy Cross Primary School is wrong and should cease. However, I was disappointed by many other Unionist speakers, both this morning and in the past week. They have failed to give clear leadership and advice to the Glenbryn community in dealing with its problems and its perception of a protest that has created more victims to add to our history of victims across many decades. New victims were made last week of children of four years of age and upwards from a primary school. We have to deal with that failure of leadership.

The image of the North that went across the globe was of sickening, ugly sectarianism. The question is, is that an accurate judgement of this place or is it wrong? I do not think that it is. I accept that sectarianism exists across the board, but I believe that there is a basic sectarianism in this place which, from its formation in the 1920s, has defined politics ever since.

1.30 pm

We could discuss again the 50 years of one-party rule, or the Unionists, who were absolutely secure in the belief that it was their right to rule and that this place would exist unchanged and under their domination for ever. Yet they had such a lack of confidence as to persecute and inflict discrimination on the Nationalist community, and to deal with them as a second-class community over that period. Therein lies the clue to the difficulties we have now.

It was illuminating and useful that Robert McCartney addressed the implications of the peace process. I can empathise with his analysis that the people of the Unionist community are no longer certain of the future, and they react as people who interpret the peace process as a transition to a united Ireland. Republicans have the same view, but we take a positive perspective on it. It is legitimate for others to take a different perspective. Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged as a legitimate aspiration. It is a normal aspiration - it is not threatening. It is not a justification for people to behave in the way that they did last week. I do not argue that the residents of Glenbryn are untypical. We have had some references to examples in the past. From time to time it is useful to remind ourselves of this so that we do not develop a single or holier-than-thou perspective on this problem. We all have problems to deal with. However, last week represented a singular failure of political leadership at a vital moment.

David Ervine made a pertinent comment which resonated with me; he said that it was a cry for help. I acknowledge that, because so often we have had to deal with pain in our community. We have had to deal with people reacting in particular ways to that pain. However, at all times there is a need to give leadership and to demonstrate that there is a way of dealing with these problems that does not involve creating more victims.

I do not know the people in the images we saw last week, but some of them may be grandmothers - they were of that age. Were they born with those attitudes? No more than those children who were attempting to go to school last week were born with sectarian attitudes. What is it about our society that has created this? What are we doing now to prevent it? If there is more overt sectarianism in our society, is it not to be understood as a knee-jerk or atavistic reaction to a process of peaceful change?

I see some political representatives sniggering at the idea that they have a duty to give responsible leadership and to help people understand that a process of change is inevitable. In the circumstances of our shared history of conflict, it is essential. If we could all embrace this process of change, it would become easier and less painful. Let us put a stop to creating more and more victims.

The Acting Deputy First Minister (Mr Mallon): I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate for two reasons. First, it gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to the principal, staff and board of governors of the Holy Cross school. I take the opportunity to do this because, as a teacher for many years, I know the type of pressures that this imposes on the teaching profession. Thank heavens they have been able to give the type of guidance that is wise and in the interests of the children.

Secondly, we should be looking forward as positively as we can. Throughout the summer the community relations unit in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister worked with the Department of Education, the Community Relations Council for Northern Ireland, the Mediation Network of Northern Ireland and other bodies and people to ensure a peaceful return to school. Despite their efforts they were unsuccessful.

In view of the events of last week, it has been necessary to put those efforts on a more public footing and in a wider context. Hence, the initiative in seeking a meeting with the Secretary of State and the agreement of Friday that we work together. Hence, the work that is now under way to establish a formal mechanism for dialogue to address a full range of local social, economic and community issues both now and in the longer term. Although that dialogue must essentially be between the groups at local level, it will of necessity involve the Executive and the Secretary of State.

I do not want to be prescriptive at this stage about the nature and form of that dialogue. That would not be helpful. Officials have instead been asked to begin a process of careful preparation. We want to build on and facilitate - not cut across existing measures and initiatives. The focus should be firmly on local issues.

North Belfast must not be used as a boxing ring for settling the wider pressures, conflicts and scores throughout Northern Ireland or as a pawn in a wider political context. What must be clear is that those efforts can only be effective if a peaceful and constructive atmosphere is created. It is time for everyone to de-escalate, not ratchet things up. I note and agree with the observations made by Bishop Walsh that there should be no need for supporters of the children and their parents. The fewer the numbers on both sides on the Ardoyne Road, the better.

It is self-evident that forms of protest that intimidate young children on the way to school are damaging the prospects of dialogue. They are damaging the reputation of the community on whose behalf the protests are being made, and of north Belfast as a whole. They are also damaging the efforts of the Executive to promote the regeneration of that area and the image and standing of Northern Ireland throughout the world.

I am glad that the Executive will be discussing the situation at its next meeting. Colleagues will be asked to review their policies and programmes on north Belfast and to ensure that we make the maximum contribution to addressing the issues on all sides. The Executive will review the issues of housing, education, social development and community relations, and Ministers across the parties will be able to contribute positively. I hope that a further statement will then be made to the Assembly.

I conclude with the one thing that we have in common. We all have children. We are all parents. We have all dealt with young people. Let us now take this opportunity to address all the roots of the problems, however those roots are perceived, in such a way that that common factor, the welfare of young people, will be our priority as and from now.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

It is interesting to note that a report by Prof Liam Kennedy which was issued last month contained an analysis of the age and gender of victims of paramilitary punishments in Northern Ireland. A summary of his report, to be laid before the House of Commons Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, states that punishment shootings of children, as well as brutal assaults, are much more prevalent in Northern Irish society than was previously thought. Principally, the UDA, the UFF, the Provisional IRA and the UVF, which are all connected to the so-called peace process, carry them out. The Provisional IRA has targeted children to a greater extent than Protestant paramilitaries. That is part of the summary of an up-to-date report.

I am very glad that I am not supported by the 'Belfast Telegraph', nor does Lindy McDowell agree with me religiously or politically, but the Nationalist community should perhaps listen to what she said.

"In nationalist areas the protest would never have happened. The wealthy, powerful Sinn Fein would of course have handled the residents differently. Sinn Fein is hot on claiming victimhood.

All week Gerry Kelly (trivialising the horror of the segregation and degradation of African Americans by comparing it to a squalid local turf war) has been rattling on about Alabama and the back of the bus. This is the same Gerry Kelly who is connected to the same Republican Movement which over the years has deposited many a pound of Semtex at the back of many a bus. The IRA, let us not forget, once shot dead a school bus driver in front of the children he was taking to school. No worries about children's rights there. I attended a tiny rural primary school. A ten-year-old girl a few years after me was murdered by the IRA, blown to pieces along with her father as she too was being taken to school. Which is why I find the sight of Martin McGuinness wringing his hands about the rights of innocent children so vomit inducing.

Many will have noted" -

and I have noted even in this debate -

"that the killing of a 16-year-old Protestant boy this week didn't even make the national news. If Tom McDonald had been a Catholic, would it not have made headlines across the world? There is no excuse for thugs and bullies who terrorise little children. Rightly the world's spotlight has been turned on those who do. But what about the people with genuine grievances who cannot get their voices heard? By ignoring them, aren't we sending a dangerous message?"

There has been much cant and humbug all over about the tragic happenings that have taken place. For a long time I, with my colleagues, have been pushing the standing of Protestant people in those areas, but the ears of Ministers and Westminster have been closed to them. The time has come not only to listen to those people's grievances but to deal with them. We hear the IRA crying aloud about how children are treated, and we think of how it has treated the whole community in past years.

I have no intention of obeying the summons from a man by the name of Mailey who has told me that as a leader I must go to a meeting. A man who shoots a policeman dead is not a man with whom I do business.

Mr Speaker:

Order. I am afraid the Member's time is up.

Mr Adams:

All people, all children, whether Protestant or Catholic or of no religion whatsoever, have the right to live, to move freely, to shop and to be educated where they want. I have made it very clear that my position is one of sympathy with the family of Thomas McDonald, and I do so again today.

I have listened intently to what our friends on the Unionist Benches have said. They too need to listen to what they have said and to the type of message and signal that they are sending from this Floor. The proposal deals with the Holy Cross school, because the pupils of that school are victims of a blockade. I commend the teaching staff, the pupils, the families and all who are caught up in that situation. The blockade is wrong and should be ended.

1.45 pm

I listened intently to Nigel Dodds, Ian Paisley and Danny Kennedy, and even if everything that they say is true and accurate, what relevance has it to young school children? Ian Paisley and Robert McCartney say that Gerry Kelly had no right to put the proposal forward. The people of north Belfast gave him that right. Unionist speakers rail against the image presented to the world of sectarian, anti-Catholic action against young people. That is an accurate image. Those who have made their political careers from sectarianism - most famously the previous Member who spoke, Ian Paisley - must reflect on their roles since the 1960s in creating the depressing situation and difficulties that are visited upon all of us.

We are told that the blockade is a cry for help from the Unionist and Loyalist section of people in north Belfast. What does that say about their representatives? What does it say about those who represent Unionism and Loyalism in Belfast and in the Six Counties? I, and others, are prepared for dialogue. It is an untruth to say that there has been no dialogue. There was dialogue, and attempts were made during the summer and before that to reach some understanding about the situation. What we have heard today from the Unionist representatives are excuses. We must be clear that sectarianism, racism, prejudice and bigotry are wrong. The House should unite in sending that message from here today - whatever else it is divided on, whether it is ideology, the constitutional question, or social matters.

It is important that Republicans listen to what the Unionist and Loyalist people of north Belfast and other places are saying. They clearly suffer the same social deprivations and disadvantage - albeit from a different historical route - as people from the Nationalist parts of Belfast. However, to rectify those rights they must be prepared to sit down and put the onus where it belongs: on Government, whether in London or in this place. They must stop treating young children and their parents as pawns.

A good start could be made here today if Members say that the blockade is wrong and should be lifted. Failure to do that will encourage the bigots, the rejectionists and the other good people who are caught up in the situation. Therefore, I ask for support for the proposal. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Hamilton:

Unfortunately Mr Cobain has been taken quite ill. I will represent his views as best I can. I am indebted to Dr McDonnell, who has left the Chamber to help Mr Cobain. Therefore, please excuse me if this is not quite to the same quality as it would have been had Mr Cobain delivered it.

The situation in north Belfast is symptomatic of a much wider problem affecting that area. There is a need to find solutions to that overall problem. North Belfast is riddled with endemic social and economic problems that are probably the worst in Northern Ireland. A recent Housing Executive report showed that north Belfast has some of the worst housing in western Europe. The report highlighted the fact that such is the appalling condition of housing in north Belfast, the Housing Executive needs to spend about £135 million over the next seven years to put those conditions right.

With regard to education, a majority of children in north Belfast leave school without any formal qualifications. They face the problem of trying to find work in a society where holding some sort of qualification is becoming more important and more likely to be a requirement. Many pupils in north Belfast have problems with basic numeracy and literacy.

With regard to health, life expectancy is lower for those who live in north Belfast. The area faces endemic problems. There is a need for additional resources in the areas of health, education and housing to address some of these problems, not just in Ardoyne but throughout north Belfast, if we are not to see the type of scenes that we have witnessed over the past week to 10 days re-enacted in other parts of north Belfast.

A community infrastructure needs to be rebuilt across the whole area. Capacity building and community de­velop­ment are needed. The community needs a facility where it can come together to discuss and devise strategies to tackle the problems. Mr Cobain wishes to make it clear that he supports the proposals announced by the acting First Minister and the Secretary of State. He is pleased that they have followed his calls for the possible establishment of a forum.

If any area in Northern Ireland deserves to have immediate attention paid to the serious and deep-rooted problems that it faces, it is north Belfast. The problems can only be solved by the community working together. For that reason it is important to create the capacity and the mechanisms in the community to enable it to do that.

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Member's time is up.

The Minister of Education (Mr M McGuinness): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. This is a crucial and overdue debate, and I am grateful to Gerry Kelly for tabling the motion on this important issue. However, as Minister of Education and as a parent, this is a debate that I hoped and prayed we would never need to have. As other Members have said, throughout the sad history of the troubles - even when the conflict was at its height - schools remained havens of peace where children were protected from events outside. Children could come to school without interference and in the knowledge that regardless of what was happening elsewhere, they would be taught in a safe and secure environment. It is deeply regrettable that this privilege has not been afforded to the young children of Holy Cross Primary School - or Wheatfield Primary School, which has also been affected by the events of the past miserable and distressing week.

Who could ever forget the appalling scenes, transmitted across the world last week, of terrified children aged four, five and six screaming in fear and clinging to their parents? Tears were streaming down their cheeks, while grown adults screamed sectarian abuse, spat and threw missiles at them. Who could ever forget the terror on their faces, and their parents' faces, when a blast bomb exploded beside them? Who could ever forget that these were just little children starting back to school at the beginning of a new school year?

In an incident not connected with schools, Thomas McDonald, himself a school boy, was killed, and I wish to extend my sincerest condolences to his sorrowing family.

On Thursday there was an attack on pupils travelling home from Cliftonville Primary School. Let us be clear and unequivocal - protests affecting school children, whether they involve throwing bombs or missiles, sectarian chanting, blowing whistles, letting off klaxon horns or turning backs, are completely unacceptable and must stop.

I believe I speak for the vast majority of people when I say that all children have the right to travel to school unhindered and without fear, and to be educated in an environment where they feel safe, secure, and ready and able to learn. It is the responsibility of everyone in society - but particularly of elected representatives - to guard and maintain that right.

Unfortunately there has been a marked failure by some Members to shoulder this responsibility. Although this issue first emerged in June, it was not adequately addressed over the summer. When it erupted again last Monday, on the first day of the new term, it fell to the parents, the teachers, the school governors and school authorities to pick up the pieces. They responded magnificently in the most difficult and uncertain circum­stances, and they deserve the utmost credit. The children are always the teachers' priority, and each day staff in both schools affected by this situation have ensured that the children are reassured, settled down and quickly introduced to the comforting routine of the school day. Given the circumstances, it is humbling and a tribute to the skill and professionalism of the principals and teachers of Holy Cross Primary School and Wheatfield Primary School that normal lessons have continued and the children have been able to progress their learning despite the stresses and strains of the past week.

A vital role has also been played by the statutory education authorities - the Council for Catholic Main­tained Schools, Belfast Education and Library Board, and officials from my Department - in working in a closely co-ordinated manner to provide advice, guidance and support to the schools caught up in the middle of this community conflict. These agencies and the two schools have come together as a group in order to identify and put in place practical measures to assist the teachers and children in dealing with the immediate and longer-term impacts of this stressful situation.

Schools of all types across the North have been in contact with Holy Cross Primary School to express their horror at what the children and staff have to endure and to offer their support.

As Education Minister, I have been extremely heartened and proud to see the wider education community once again pulling together in the face of adversity to assert and maintain the basic right of children to education. That has been one of the positive things to come out of this dreadful situation. I applaud all those who raised their voices against this protest and called for it to end.

From the outset courageous leadership was shown by church leaders, including those from the Protestant community, who spoke out in such a forthright manner against the attacks on the Holy Cross children.

I said in a press conference in Ardoyne last Tuesday that this was a community issue that could not be left to the schools, authorities and the parents to sort out, and that there was a responsibility on politicians and community leaders, particularly those representing the local area, to get discussions going and reach an accommodation. Since then there have been calls for a resolution from all the political parties, and I particularly welcome the statement from the Education Committee affirming the right of children to travel to and from school free from interference, abuse or obstruction. Clearly there are wider issues of concern to both communities in Ardoyne which have not been addressed and have spawned a highly charged context to the current dispute. These must be tackled as part of a long-term solution, and this can only be achieved through the immediate commencement of dialogue between the two communities.

This is a task for local politicians and community leaders. It is not a task for children, schoolteachers and boards of governors, who must immediately be relieved of the terrible pressures that they face every day.

2.00 pm

The protest is wrong - it is untenable and must stop immediately. Although the situation has improved a little in recent days, and I am encouraged by the progress that has been made, much still remains to be done. I therefore sincerely appeal to everyone in the Assembly, to community leaders and to people of influence outside the House to do everything in their power to resolve the dispute immediately and restore to the children of Holy Cross and Wheatfield the safe, secure and normal educational environment to which they are entitled. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Kennedy:

I hope that I will have an opportunity to address the many points raised by Members. There were some points with which I agreed, and others with which I could not agree because of the way in which they were made. It has been a healthy exercise for the Assembly to consider the issue. I was rather surprised that Alban Maginness - and indeed Mr Mallon, the acting Deputy First Minister - said, on behalf of the SDLP, that they could not support my amendment. I remind the House of the reason why I put down the amendment: I believe that it is a basic right for all children - in Holy Cross, in Wheatfield, in north Belfast, in Newry and Armagh and in all parts of Northern Ireland - to attend school in a completely peaceful environment. I cannot see why the SDLP cannot support that. I can only conclude that in some way it is, as usual, running scared of Sinn Féin. That is a matter of huge regret, given that Mr Alban Maginness and Mr Mallon both made a contribution to the debate. On behalf of my party, I want to express condolences to the McDonald family, who were mentioned by Mr Dodds.

Several Members did not actually refer to the amendment. They preferred to address themselves to the main motion, or to what they thought the main motion represented. It will be interesting to see where political parties and individuals will stand at the conclusion. I readily accept the points made by Members for North Belfast, such as Mr Agnew and Mr Billy Hutchinson, who are rightly concerned about organised campaigns conducted against the local Protestant community. They have to deal with that at the coalface and hear genuine concerns expressed by members of the local Unionist population.

I agree with Mr Mallon that things should not be ratcheted up. Many Members have attempted not to do that, while others have used terms that are highly damaging. I hope that people will reflect on what has been said. Dr Paisley was right to refer to the report by Prof Liam Kennedy highlighting the damage done to school children and young people, over a period of many years, by Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries.

I thank my Colleague, Tom Hamilton, who stood in for Mr Cobain, the Ulster Unionist Member for North Belfast. Many points raised in that speech should be seriously and urgently considered. I welcome the proposals from the Executive and the Secretary of State and hope that they can be speedily implemented.

The Minister of Education has a highly selective memory: he appears not to remember the many appalling incidents that affected school children and teachers over the years. Regrettably, he did not acknowledge them. Consideration must be given to the staff and everyone associated with Holy Cross Girls' School and Wheatfield Primary School. North Belfast is not Alabama, and attempts to create a Palestinian West Bank scenario should be avoided.


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