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13 November 2003 Edition

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Holy Cross through BBC-tinted Glasses

The television drama based on events at Holy Cross Girls Primary School in North Belfast was flawed before the BBC had even filmed the first scene. The television drama based on events at Holy Cross Girls Primary School in North Belfast was flawed before the BBC had even filmed the first scene.

It was flawed because it attempted to depict "both sides" of the loyalist blockade which saw young Catholic girls and their families terrorised for three long months, and that is a gross distortion of reality.

Of course, when it comes to the Six Counties the BBC is at a distinct disadvantage. Telling the truth has never been its objective, so what to do when a glaringly explicit snapshot of life for Catholics and nationalists in North Belfast rears its very ugly head on the international stage?

But far be it from the BBC to refuse a challenge... or any accompanying rise in ratings.

So in they dove, sending reconnaissance squads off to Ardoyne and Glenbryn to flush out soundbytes of painful experience for use in the script, fully confident that the party line of "two warring tribes" would serve them faithfully once again.

As a result, Holy Cross the drama tells the story of "two ordinary families caught on either side of the sectarian divide" and chronicles events surrounding the loyalist blockade through the eyes of children caught in the middle — a Protestant child and two young Catholic sisters.

The Protestant family represented is a single parent home. Karen Norton, a working-class Protestant mother of one, is tortured nightly by "nationalist hoods" attacking her Glenbryn house and desperately wants a new interface peaceline built to prevent further attacks. Her daughter Sarah attends Wheatfield Primary, the Protestant school across the road from Holy Cross.

Catholic mother Ann McClure is married with three children — a troubled teenage son and two young girls who attend Holy Cross. Ann is, of course, married to a former IRA man, which affords the BBC several not-so-subtle opportunities to admonish republicanism.

Of course, the IRA had nothing to do with what happened at Holy Cross, but why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

The courageous families who faced the loyalist "corridor of hate" on the Ardoyne Road know only too well that those who participated in the blockade viewed everyone as being "IRA", even four-year-old girls trying to get to school.

Protestors shouted it en masse every single day. They wrote it out on placards, whined about it to the only-too-interested press. They saw the IRA coming up "their road" because in the minds of the UDA and their supporters, IRA means Catholic. The two words are interchangeble in the loyalist vocabulary — along with other charming colloquial terms like, 'Fenian' and 'Papist whore'.

Catholics were "animals" and "scum," and once the families walking the road to school were reduced to subhuman level in the minds of the protestors, anything could be justified. Even throwing a pipe bomb at children, threatening to put snipers in the crowd, pelting little girls with balloons filled with urine or sending death threats to parents and priests.

Head of BBC drama Jane Tranter claims it was the programme's intention to "go behind the headlines and provide emotional insight into why people reacted in the way they did" but if this was the goal of the production, it failed.

"To me it appeared that the film-makers were trying to produce a balance between Catholics and Protestants," said former Holy Cross Governor Gerard McGuigan this week, "when in actual fact, if you look at what happened there was no balance.

"The fact of the matter is that Catholic children were attacked on their way to school. Those protests were tantamount to child abuse and to try to gloss over what happened and come up with a drama which reinforces the old cliche that 'one side is just as bad as the other' was just factually and morally wrong."

"It was child abuse, pure and simple, and totally unprovoked," says Father Aiden Troy, Chairperson of the Holy Cross Board of Governors. "Those children were left to stew for three months and left to endure the taunts."

Father Troy's role in events at the school, alongside that of Father Gary Donegan, was completely ignored by the production, in spite of the fact that both men were pillars of strength for traumatised families throughout the ordeal.

Both priests braved death threats and personal attacks on their character and faith, but they never once wavered in their complete support of the Holy Cross families or their absolute determination to protect the children in their charge.

Even the dramatic depiction of the "corridor" of protesters and state forces that families were forced to pass through on their way up to the school, fell far short of the reality.

The vicious onslaught parents and children withstood was far more intense and terrifying than the watered-down version the BBC provided, disturbing as it may have been, and the relentless sense of fear and dread far more imposing and constant.

Although it is now more than two years since the loyalist blockade was in full swing, the memory is still fresh in the hearts and minds of the families and children who were the focus of the UDA-driven campaign.

They remember it all too well, in vivid detail. For them it is still an open wound, a raw nerve, a nightmare that has never really left them.

The families did not want this drama made, and expressed those sentiments to the BBC in no uncertain terms, to no avail. The BBC and RTÉ then added further insult to injury when they refused to allow all the parents from the school access to a closed pre-screening of the work upon its completion.

"They really didn't care what we thought at all," said one parent. "They were determined to push their version of events through whether they got it right or not."

To date, the UDA has still not lifted the death threats it placed on Holy Cross parents and the courageous children who were targeted continue to suffer the after-effects of trauma.

Many parents say they will never shake the thought that a similar blockade could begin again someday, whether at Holy Cross or at another school. Some even fear that the film could re-ignite tensions and lead to further violence, citing a series of recent ongoing attacks against Catholic schools by unionist paramilitaries.

Ongoing attacks

This past January, the UDA placed a pipe bomb on the front gates of Holy Cross, just in time for the first day of the new school term, and only weeks ago cars in the parking lot of the nearby Our Lady Of Mercy secondary school were set on fire by a gang of men.

In fact, the day after the drama aired on BBC 1, yet another pipe bomb was left outside the North Belfast home of a Holy Cross parent.

The local UDA, under their favourite pseudonym the Red Hand Defenders, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the parent, Tina Gallagher, was targeted because she was a spokesperson for the remaining Holy Cross families. The woman concerned however, has never held any such position.

BBC boss Jane Tranter defends the making of the film, calling it a "brave decision" but one wonders if Tranter really knows what bravery is all about. One would be hard pressed to find a better illustration than the image of little girls and their families tentatively tiptoeing into a chasm of unionist violence.

Meanwhile, representatives of the unionist community are not happy with the drama either, saying the film offers no hope for the future and ignores all the hard work done by community workers from both sides to improve relations in the area.

Reverend Norman Hamilton of the Ballysillan Presbyterian Church, called the production "seriously flawed" and says that although he does not dispute the BBC's right to make the programme, he did dispute "their right to impose the drama on the communities most affected without some serious attempt to get their consent on the content.

"Over the years it has been alleged more than once that the media have a lot to answer for in Northern Ireland," wrote Rev Hamilton in a public response this week. "This production will add to the sense that public ratings matter much more than public responsibility. In my view, this is a significant example of public dis-service broadcasting.

"This is a dark piece of work, which seems to me to publicly humiliate both communities."

In retrospect it could be argued that any depiction of the Holy Cross blockade was going to be controversial, but in the end even BBC's dramatists could not gloss over the reality of the horror, in spite of the fictionalised character studies.

While innocent little girls became the targets of unprovoked unionist violence and hate, the British state, the media, trade unions, politicians and even child protection agencies stood by in silence and let it happen. Some even tried to justify it.

That is the real truth behind what happened at Holy Cross.

And it is far darker than anything the BBC could imagine.

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