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Bridging Belfast’s Divided Catholic and Protestant Communities

A Catholic family walks along the Ardoyne Road to Holy Cross Girls Primary School in north Belfast in September 2001, shielded by security forces after violence flared that year. Photo by Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images.

Belfast’s Ardoyne Road is a street of division. A half-mile in length, the road stretches through the Catholic neighborhood of Ardoyne then into Upper Ardoyne, a Protestant area to the north.

On the far end of the Ardoyne Road is Holy Cross Girls Primary School, a Catholic school located in a primarily Protestant neighborhood that became a focal point of violence between members of the two religions. Directly across the street is Wheatfield Primary School, which is attended by local Protestants from Upper Ardoyne and the nearby Shankill Road.
In June 2001, there had been a number of sectarian shootings in the area, and the residents of Upper Ardoyne were preparing for the Twelfth of July, a controversial holiday commemorating the defeat of the Catholic King James II by the Protestant King William of Orange. The holiday is accompanied many years later by Protestant parades that fuel tensions and incidents of violence between the two communities.

On June 19, 2001, the Protestant residents of Upper Ardoyne responded to the violent exchanges by creating a human barrier on their half of Ardoyne Road, blocking the route to Holy Cross. When the new school year started, police and army personnel forced a path to the school that students and their families crossed — and students at Wheatfield watched.

“I still get flashbacks whenever I walk near Holy Cross,” said Alice Lee more than 10 years later. Now a 16-year-old still living in Catholic Ardoyne, her experience as a 5 year old in 2001 shaped her views on Protestants growing up. She said she felt lots of anger as a child, unsure what exactly happened in 2001 or why.

“Why do they always bring up about Holy Cross? We had trouble getting to school, too,” said Kari, a 16-year-old Protestant who attended Wheatfield. “We felt like it was all their side. Like nobody wanted to hear us.”

Though their perspectives were different, both girls shared remarkably similar personal stories of growing up in a divided community with experiences of violence and segregation.

They both took part in Interface Diaries, a project I founded in 2010 with the aim of using video to foster dialogue between young people living in divided areas of Belfast. By partnering with the Ardoyne Youth Providers Forum and the Shankill Area Project, Interface Diaries brought together two groups of young women who attended Holy Cross and Wheatfield during the events of 2001. They got to ask each other questions and send each other answers via video for eight weeks earlier this year.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bM9aQihk1hQ&w=480&h=305]

Through the video diaries, they learned more about each other and their attitudes softened.

“I would have been very bitter towards Protestants before this, but I tell you now it’s a whole different side,” said 16-year-old Natasha from Catholic Ardoyne. Prior to the project, she had never met her Protestant neighbors.

“It was like we got to know them before we even knew them,” said Lauren, a Catholic from Ardoyne. I just don’t see why religion is so important anymore.”

Following the eight weeks of video diaries, the two groups met in person, not as Protestants and Catholics but as teenagers. They organized tours of each other’s areas and went to Manchester on a group trip to learn about how prejudice is being tackled in the United Kingdom.

“People are different, but that’s OK. I’ve gained loads of confidence and it seems like a lot of the things we’ve learned from our parents might not be true,” said 15-year-old Melissa from the Protestant Shankill. “I’ve got to see it through my own eyes.”

On Wednesday’s NewsHour, watch a report about the July 12 marches and lingering animosities in Belfast by special correspondents Kira Kay and Jason Maloney. Will Maloney was their field producer.

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