BAYING LOYALIST mobs on the one side. Catholic parents escorting girls as young as four to primary school on the other. The images from Holy Cross School in north Belfast should convince anyone that the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland is not about an even split between two antagonistic 'communities'.
Can anyone truly equate terrified primary school girls with a mob of adults hurling abuse and missiles? There have been calls for parents to usher their children through the grounds of a neighbouring school and into the back of Holy Cross.
There have even been suggestions that the parents are 'using the children' and 'exposing them to violence'. This is like saying that the black school students who in 1957 braved violent racists to get to school in Little Rock in the US were inviting racist terror. It is possible to hold such a view only by a determination to ignore reality and to try to force the conflict in Northern Ireland into a tale of 'tribal conflict'.
But what the outrage outside Holy Cross reveals is a sectarian anti-Catholic hatred which goes to the heart of the Northern Ireland state itself. Loyalist and Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland have called for 'peaceful and dignified' protests to be allowed outside the school.
In other words, they want 'dignified' intimidation of primary school children. Northern Ireland secretary John Reid says the Loyalists may have 'legitimate grievances' but feels these have been 'drowned out by this violent sectarian bigotry'.
Opposing Catholic schoolgirls walking down the street is in no way 'legitimate'. It is 'sectarian bigotry', and acting on it can only mean violence.
Britain's role is key
Sectarian bigotry is inseparable from the whole set-up of the Northern Ireland state. It was founded in 1921, when Britain's rulers partitioned Ireland in order to hold on to six out of 32 counties in the north, where the bulk of industry was then concentrated.
They set out to create a 'Protestant state for a Protestant people'. That required force of arms from the beginning. Against the majority of people in Ireland as a whole, who had voted for independence from Britain. Against the Catholic minority in the North, who found themselves trapped in a state where they were regarded as second class.
And against those Protestants who rejected the idea that Catholics were inferior. The whole paraphernalia of Orangeism-the marches through Catholic neighbourhoods, the anti-Catholic songs and rituals-were about cementing Protestant workers behind the Unionist establishment and British rule. Every institution in Northern Ireland was shot through with sectarianism, from the police to the judiciary, and in housing, education and employment.
Opposition to that led to a movement for civil rights in the 1960s. It was batoned off the streets. The violence of the Northern Ireland state provoked a quarter of a century of open conflict. The peace process over the last seven years was, we were told, meant to put an end to that.
It has seen a ceasefire by the Provisional IRA. But the last 12 months has also seen an accelerating spiral of attacks by Loyalist terror gangs on Catholics. The New Labour government does not want the violent sectarian attacks, but its policy has ensured they will continue. It has conceded to the Unionist defenders of the Northern Ireland state all along the line.
It has allowed Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble to throw up one hurdle to peace after another. And the peace process itself entrenches the sectarian division between Protestant and Catholic.
It says that each are separate, opposed communities that must be represented by politicians who fight for one group against another. But the tide of the last three decades has largely flowed against sectarianism. Unionist politicians who could once mobilise hundreds of thousands of people are now largely distrusted by ordinary Protestants.
Most people, Protestant and Catholic, in Northern Ireland want peace and an end to sectarianism. A recent opinion poll revealed that only 26 percent of people in Britain believe Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK. There is no groundswell in Britain for the Unionists in Northern Ireland. People are appalled at the scenes outside Holy Cross.
Those behind the violence rely ultimately on one thing-the continued presence of the British state in Northern Ireland. That state shores up a monstrosity, placating the official face of Orangeism and perpetuating the basis for violent Orange outbursts. To end sectarian violence in Northern Ireland demands one thing-pulling the plug on the sectarian state that sustains it.
The British state created the nightmare. It should get out and allow the people who have endured it to bring it to an end.