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Belfast Taxi Tour: Part 4 – Holy Cross & Ardoyne

Submitted by on July 23, 2010 – 2:35 pmNo Comment


Ardoyne Avenue, North Belfast

Ardoyne Avenue, North Belfast

Before setting off for Belfast there had been worrying coverage of riots throughout the city following the previous week’s July 12th ‘celebrations’. My concerns may have been greater and far more selfish in origin had FC United’s game not been moved to Donegal Celtic instead of taking place at Cliftonville’s home ground in Ardoyne, North Belfast, which was the scene of the worst trouble.

As has historically been the case, the catalyst for the violence was an attempted march through majority Nationalist areas by the Protestant / Unionist Orange Order. I don’t know if they made it through but by the looks of Ardoyne, our next stop, it would have been no walk in the park for the bowler hat brigade. The place is visibly scarred by events of the past week, the result of several days’ riots by hundreds of Nationalist youths.

Without wishing to skirt over the history and from the point of view of a relative outsider, it can be summarised as follows: the Protestant Orange Order still persists in wanting to take what many see as their sectarian, bigoted marches through Nationalist areas. The Catholic residents say they are intimidated and that the Orange Order, bolstered by Loyalist groups who hijack the marches, incite trouble with their triumphal remembrance of centuries-old religious battles, in particular the Battle of the Boyne. Having seen footage from previous years’ marches in the province, most notably the stand-offs at Drumcree, you’d be hard pushed not to admit that the Nationalists are within their rights to feel slightly put out by these Loyalist shows of force.

Ardoyne, a majority Catholic enclave in the predominantly Protestant North of Belfast, erupted on the 12th with hundreds of Nationalists massing to prevent the Orange Order marching down Crumlin Road.  The police duly moved in and soon became the target for rocks, petrol bombs and anything else the locals could get their hands on.  Trouble continued for three days, during which a female PSNI officer was hospitalised having been hit on the head and knocked unconscious by a block dropped from the roof of a row of shops.  We pass the shops on the way up to Holy Cross school, our driver pointing out the stone coving with sections missing. On the road there are scorch marks where cars had been set on fire. The walls of the nearby houses, which by the looks of it had been recently renovated as part of wholesale improvements to the area, have had their walls kicked down to provide the rioters with more ammunition. It’s quiet now but it takes little imagination to see what it would have been like a few days ago and I’m grateful for the work that had to be done on Cliftonville’s pitch, which made for our pleasant afternoon at Donegal Celtic rather dodging bricks up here.

Ardoyne has become one of the most volatile ‘touch points’ in the North of Ireland in recent years. The area gained notoriety in 2001 following a dispute centring on Holy Cross Roman Catholic Primary School, which is situated about 200 metres inside the Protestant side of a ‘peace wall’ on Alliance Avenue, which separates the two communities. But for graffiti, the school had stayed remarkably untroubled by sectarian conflict over the previous three decades. This all changed when the Provisional IRA were suspected of murdering a Protestant taxi driver in Ardoyne in 2000. Rumours escalated about PIRA activity in the area and Loyalists began to claim, amongst other things, that the school run was being used for PIRA intelligence gathering.

In September 2001 children at the school began to tell of increasing verbal abuse and intimidation from Protestant residents, which appeared well-founded when a Loyalist picket was set up outside the school. News broadcasts would eventually show scenes of Catholic parents and children being escorted up Ardoyne Road from the Nationalist end to the school on the Loyalist side by hundreds of police in full riot gear. Our driver does little to hide his disgust when telling us that pipe bombs and blast bombs were thrown at the Catholics as they simply tried to get their kids to school. This continued for fourteen weeks up to November 22nd. The intimidation started again in January 2002 and hit its peak when the Loyalist group the Red Hand Defenders issued a death threat to staff and teachers in North Belfast.

There have been no major incidents at Holy Cross since 2003 but our driver is keen to point out, as he has done several times already today, that Belfast has an uneasy atmosphere. He puts this down to the global recession, which I find odd given that sectarianism would have been a more obvious thing to cite. “Before the credit crunch”, he elaborates, “there was investment in Belfast. There were jobs, the place was being cleaned up and people were starting to buy houses and take pride in them”. He points out a street on our left as we head back down Ardoyne Road which is bedecked in red, white and blue. The lampposts look like they’ve let four year old kids loose on them with paintbrushes. “Before the recession”, he continues, “you wouldn’t have seen that down there. People were buying and selling houses so they wanted the place to look nice and they cleaned everywhere up”. But now people in Belfast, like almost everywhere else, are left with houses worth less than they paid for them. With little chance of selling them, people are no longer worried about flags and paint lowering the house prices so they’re back on display, bringing with them a rise in sectarian, territorial tensions.

We head South, out onto Crumlin Road and towards Woodvale Road which joins the Upper Shankill. As we reach the Shankill Road the driver points out a chippy which was the scene of one of the bloodiest attacks on the Protestants of West Belfast. On October 23rd 1993 two IRA men, believing that a meeting between leading Loyalist paramilitary figures was taking place upstairs that afternoon, entered Frizzell’s Fish Bar with a bomb on a timer. The device detonated early, killing 9 civilians and one of the IRA men, Thomas Begley. The other, Sean Kelly, escaped but was later arrested and charged with 9 counts of murder. He was released as part of the Belfast Agreement. In the weeks following the bombing the UVF and UFF carried out reprisal attacks, killing at least 19 Catholics, including the infamous Greysteel Massacre, where 8 people were gunned down in the Rising Sun bar.

As we move quickly down the Shankill we catch a glimpse of some more murals, including probably one of the least impressive – a definite amateur attempt to paint some old bird in a crown. We pass the Northern Ireland Supporters Club, where on Friday one FC United fan had sat with his coat zipped up having a pint in an attempt to hide his new Cliftonville t-shirt which featured a large green shamrock. Apparently it was not coat weather in there but he stuck with it, downing his pint and praying everyone else would do likewise.

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