Holy Cross dispute: Former pupil asks why children were targeted

A Belfast woman who was subjected to abuse and missiles as she walked to school 20 years ago says she has never had an explanation for what she and school mates went through.

Thursday, 24th June 2021, 6:55 am
Alice-Lee Bunting who attended Holy Cross Girls' School Belfast 20 years ago during the Holy Cross dispute in Ardoyne, north Belfast walking with her sons Darragh Bunting (4) and Keaghan Tommy Bunting (8 months).

Alice-Lee Bunting, 24, was among scores of girls who were forced to run a loyalist gauntlet on their way to Holy Cross primary school in Ardoyne in 2001.

Images of Ms Bunting and her school mates crying and clinging to their parents in terror hit headlines across the world at the time.

The picketing of children and their parents walking to the Catholic girls school in an area regarded by loyalists as Protestant started in 2001 during soaring sectarian tensions. It resumed in September after the school summer holiday as Ms Bunting started P1, and continued to January 2002.

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Alice-Lee Bunting, 5, seen through a RUC human corden, being comforted by her mother, as she is escorted to Holy Cross school, north Belfast.

Ms Bunting said she had no idea why she was being attacked, and neither did her mother. Twenty years on she said she still suffers flashbacks and nightmares about those scenes.

Her eldest son Darraigh is due to start school in September, 20 years after her first day at school. She told the PA news agency she is relieved he will not have to face what she did.

“It feels like yesterday, it was just horrendous for little girls going to school,” she said.

“It was my first day in P1, I was nervous anyway for my first day at school, but walking to school and grown-ups shouting at us, throwing stuff at us, I didn’t know what was going on. It felt like a bad dream, getting up every day to face that, I just didn’t want to go to school, I couldn’t stop crying.

“I was only five at the time, every night I was getting flashbacks.”

Missiles thrown at the girls and their parents included balloons filled with urine and pipe bombs. The girls and their parents had to be escorted by police. “My mummy didn’t really know what was going on either, in the photos from the time you can see that she was really scared, but it was a choice either to get us to school or not,” she said.

“We were just innocent wee girls coming to school, we hadn’t done anything wrong. It was older people, some even pensioners who were terrorising us. They didn’t have to take it out on us going to school.

“It will stay with me for life, it’s not something that can be forgotten.”

Twenty years on, Ms Bunting said they still don’t know exactly why they were targeted.

I have never heard anything, we’ve never had any counselling, in school there was a lady came in to talk to us but other than that I never got any help,” she said.

“I’m still living with it. Any time I come up this road, even today, I feel nervous. I hope it never happens again.

There are still no answers as to why we were terrorised like that going to school, we were only little girls.

“Hopefully someone might try to explain to us some day why they targeted us.”

While Ms Bunting has two sons, she said if she had daughters, she would have sent them to Holy Cross.

“It’s a good school, I loved it and I’m glad to see it still standing,” she added.