25 October 2001 Edition
Latest UDA Holy Cross death threat
Using the cover name of the Red hand Defenders, the UDA this week extended its death threat to include more pupils and parents of Holy Cross Primary School.
On Tuesday morning, a number of parents at Holy Cross School were informed by the RUC that both themselves and their children had been threatened with "military action" by the Red Hand Defenders.
The RHD threatened action against children and parents if they walked along the Ardoyne Road to Holy Cross Girls Primary School.
"Everyone knows that this threat, in reality, originates from the UDA, an organisation which has been responsible for hundreds of bomb and gun attacks on nationalists in North Belfast this year," said Sinn Féin councillor Margaret McClenaghan.
"This cowardly threat against schoolchildren and their parents must be lifted immediately. I call upon anybody with influence within the unionist community to do all in their power to have this threat lifted. I would also call on nationalists to remain extremely vigilant."
Meanwhile, Martin Monaghan of the Right to Educatin Group has accused the RUC of preventing parents whose children are due to sit the 11+ from attending a meeting at the school on Wednesday afternoon.
Monaghan said: "It is important that parents and children attend this meeting. Our children are already under enormous stress from the loyalist blockade without now encountering a further blockade from the RUC.
"This is the second time the RUC have blocked the parents from going to the school to attend 11+ meetings. The issue is clear; no one, loyalist or RUC have the right to prevent us from going to school."
A Holy Cross mother speaks out
BY LAURA FRIEL
Persecution is a concept that Brice Dickson needs to understand. Two weeks ago, standing on the Ardoyne Road, the Human Rights Commissioner appeared bemused when challenged by a parent of a Holy Cross child. Philomena Flood burst angrily into a media interview and accused Dickson of being "a disgrace to his title".
Just moments earlier, the commissioner had fought shy of walking beside Holy Cross parents taking their children to school but had been seen chatting to loyalist protestors. Local priest Fr Aiden Troy described Dickson's actions as "deeply disappointing".
Philomena Flood's hands are shaking. Her voice trembles as she speaks and she's just a hair's breadth away from tears. Almost two months of loyalist intimidation outside the gates of Holy Cross Primary School, where Philomena's daughter Eirinn is a pupil, has taken its toll.
Philomena isn't someone who is easily intimidated. Loyalists from Glenbryn have had to work hard to instil this level of fear in Philomena and her three young children. Since the first day of the new school term, Philomena and her seven-year-old daughter have endured a litany of abuse and attack. And they haven't been alone.
Glenbryn protestors have subjected several hundred parents and pupils of Holy Cross to vile verbal abuse, both sexual and sectarian, physical assault, including bombardment with bottles, bricks, fireworks and balloons filled with urine or dog shit. On two occasions pipe bombs have been thrown by loyalist blockaders, once as parents and their children were passing. A British soldier and a member of the RUC sustained injuries as a result of the bomb attacks.
Holy Cross children and their parents have also endured humiliation and ridicule, with loyalists cavorting in carnival masks and other tomfoolery. This week loyalist mockery, which has included wearing facemasks of the British queen and USA President George Bush, took a more sinister turn with protestors sporting homemade masks of loyalist killer Johnny Adair.
On other occasions, loyalist protestors have carried placards making lewd sexual accusations targeting Catholic priest Fr Troy. Last week, loyalists shouted at mothers walking their children to school, "this is what Fenian whores get up to" while parading with pornographic posters.
On Friday, four-year-old Eimear and her six-year-old cousin Rachel Mervyn were making their way home when Rachel tripped and fell, cutting her knees and banging her head. Glenbryn protestors cheered and clapped with delight.
"You can't even walk, you stupid Fenian bastards," someone shouted. The tearful child's mother described her own humiliation. "I feel like a coward in front of my children when I can't protect my daughter from this type of abuse."
Twice daily, Catholics have been force to walk this gauntlet of hatred through a corridor of military hardware, with hundreds of heavily armed and masked RUC riot squad officers and British soldiers. Apart from two local priests and a couple of school governors, the parents and their children have faced this ordeal alone.
Alternatively, their screams of fear and tears of terror and their stoicism and restraint have been repeatedly recorded and broadcast by the media. No one can forget the images of panicked mothers and children, some as young as four years of age, running in terror in the wake of a pipe bomb thrown as they walked to school.
Equally memorable are the scenes of children singing the nursery song 'the wheels of the bus' in a desperate attempt to protect themselves from the obscenity of adults blockading their way to and from school in the name of human rights.
And for many parents and pupils, their daily ordeal hasn't ended with the close of each school day. Almost nightly loyalist attacks in some of the most vulnerable areas of North Belfast and the more specific targeting of Holy Cross parents have ensured that fear by day has been accompanied by terror at night.
"I was at home, in the garden playing with my two-year-old daughter, Deirbhile," says Philomena, "when I was first told of the loyalist threat against me." Philomena was informed that a loyalist death squad using the cover name of the Red Hand Defenders had telephoned a warning using a recognised code word. Philomena would be "executed on sight", the loyalist had said.
The RUC had delivered the warning and 'off the record' they were in no doubt as from where the threat emanated. "You don't need to look too far from your doorstep," one RUC officer had said. Reliving the moment, Philomena fights back the tears. "It was as if my whole world collapsed," says Philomena. "I couldn't believe it. All I was trying to do was walk a child to school."
"I didn't tell my children," says Philomena, "but they soon guessed something was wrong. I moved us all into the back bedroom to sleep together. During the week I kept them in and at weekends I took them away. If an unknown car pulled up outside the house, I was fearful."
A couple of weeks later, a second loyalist threat was issued. This time, the caller was a woman. Again the threat was issued under the guise of the RHD, a cover name used by both the UDA and LVF. Philomena was going to be "severely dealt with", said the caller.
Philomena was shopping in Belfast City centre when a woman she recognised from the protest in Glenbryn threatened her for a third time. "I didn't feel safe anywhere," says Philomena. "And then I was threatened in front of my daughter."
"I'm going to kill you," a known UDA member shouted as Philomena walked with her daughter through the military cordon towards Holy Cross School. "You'll have a bullet in the head," he shouted.
"I tried to make light of it," says Philomena, "Eirinn was upset and asked if that man was going to kill me. I said he didn't mean it, it was nothing." But Philomena was afraid and her children knew it.
Eirinn began experiencing nightmares; often she gave graphic accounts of disturbing dreams. There were sleepless nights, bed-wetting and mood swings. Sometimes Eirinn clung to her mother; sometimes she was aggressive and angry, at times she was distant and unresponsive.
"My nine-year-old son begged to be allowed to walk with us to Holy Cross," says Philomena. "Padraig was afraid and wanted to be there to protect us. That's too big a deal for so young a boy to shoulder." It was too big a deal for any of the family to shoulder. Philomena packed the family's belongings and moved out of their Ardoyne home. Currently homeless, the family's future is uncertain. For the moment, Eirinn is still attending Holy Cross School.
The family has sought refuge in temporary accommodation but they remain fearful. "I'm afraid someone will see us and find out where we are staying. I'm keeping the children inside and the curtains closed," says Philomena.
Philomena Flood is one of three parents of children attending Holy Cross School currently living under the threat of loyalist assassination. Others were told that they would be "shot on sight" if they were seen walking up the Ardoyne Road.
Persecution comes in different forms but it isn't hard to recognise. Sometimes it is racist. Sometimes it's religious. Sometimes race and creed are inextricably linked. Whether the Glenbryn protestors are engaging in anti-Irish racism or anti-Catholic bigotry by targeting parents and pupils of Holy Cross, the target of their hatred remain the same.
As Philomena and her family were preparing to flee from their North Belfast home, Human Rights Commissioner Brice Dickson was mouthing platitudes on the Ardoyne Road. Dickson said it was wrong to block children but added, "a peaceful protest is not harming anyone."
"Terrible things are happening every day," said Dickson, "I have been saying to people we are available to talk to them about their human rights. But first and foremost we will be stressing the need for dialogue, that's the way forward."
For over four months, since the blockade of Holy Cross first began at the end of the school term last June, parents and community representatives have sought dialogue with the residents of Glenbryn. For weeks the protestors complained that no one was listening to them while refusing to engage in any kind of talks.
More recently, hopes that dialogue might deliver a mechanism within which genuine grievances can begin to be addressed were repeatedly dashed, as facilitators acting on behalf of Glenbryn residents pulled out of agreements and failed to deliver a coherent position.
Glenbryn loyalists have repeatedly claimed that their grievances are not against Catholic schoolchildren, while insisting on targeting them with the most abdominal sectarian and hateful abuse.
Privately, British and Unionist politicians have admitted that many of the protestors so called 'grievances' do not stand up to scrutiny. Recent statistics released by the Housing Executive have revealed that 92% of attacks on homes in North Belfast have been against the nationalist community.
Last week, just hours before Brice Dickson was due to make a statement, an elderly resident of Glenbryn wept on camera as she described her fear after receiving a threatening letter through the post purporting to be from a previously unknown group 'the north Belfast Catholic reaction force'.
"I am afraid and really scared," said the 76-year-old woman. "I don't know why they have done this to me. I am so nervous and upset. I have never gone up to the picket, so why are they doing this to me?"
The pensioner's fears and tears were genuine. The letter was a fake. A senior RUC officer declared the letter, and four others sent to elderly residents living in Glenbryn, the work of the UDA.
"The UDA have been oiling their PR machine in the last few months," the RUC told a Sunday Newspaper. "They see this kind of thing as one way to counteract their appalling image."
In this way at least, the UDA doesn't differentiate. When it comes to pursuing their campaign of hate, the UDA make no distinction between the persecution of Catholic schoolgirls and Protestant pensioners. If Brice Dickson needed balance, the UDA could create it for him.
"I was so angry when I saw Brice Dickson speaking to the media," says Philomena. "We had endured weeks of harassment and intimidation and made genuine attempts at dialogue."
Philomena believes she only became a target for loyalist death threats because she was prepared to engage in face-to-face dialogue. The threats began shortly after Philomena, acting as a parents' spokesperson, met with representatives of the Glenbryn protestors. "Once they knew my name," says Philomena, "I became an easy target."
Despite her ordeal, Philomena, like other parents of Holy Cross, remains prepared to talk and negotiate with people from Glenbryn but the parents can no longer wait for loyalist engagement. "The UDA have put my child and other children attending Holy Cross Primary School into the front line, that reality needs to be confronted," says Philomena. "Calling for dialogue has become an excuse for doing nothing. People in positions of power and influence, like John Reid and Brice Dickson must take action. The blockade must end and soon."
The Right to Education group is calling for a broad campaign of support. If you feel you would like to help by organising a rally in your local area or by lobbying political representatives, public bodies and dignitaries on behalf of the 'Friends of Holy Cross', please contact Gerry McConville at the Falls Community Centre at Belfast (90) 202030. A Civil Rights rally in support of the parents and pupils will be held on Saturday 27 October at 1pm at Belfast City Hall.