Holy Cross – the hidden story has one overwhelming strength. Written by a journalist, it is made up of close-grained and exhaustive interviews of many of the leading participants, providing in meticulous detail a blow-by blow account of a truly extraordinary and horrific episode.

Yet the book’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Rather than the hidden story it repeats the revealed story all over again in great detail. To tell the hidden story one would have to present hidden facts or a new framework and perspective from which the existing facts can be reinterpreted. There are few new facts and, as in the original events, there is a curious blurring that overlies the whole episode. Was the blockade of Holy Cross one of the crassest and most animalistic examples of raw bigotry in the annals of the Northern state, or was it a sad and deformed expression of community conflict? Anne Cadwallader identifies, condemns and examines in forensic detail the reality of an assault fuelled by sectarian hatred, but she finds herself drawing a narrow focus on Protestant and Catholic communities living in the immediate environment of the Holy Cross school and on the police operation that took place at the time of the blockade, thus adding to the credence of the ‘community conflict’ model. Yet there are clues aplenty scattered about the book that indicate that the responsibility for the ordeal of the primary school children was distributed much more widely in Britain and Ireland.

Loyalist denials

The book has much of the feel of a post-modern novel. Different perspectives are presented but not directly challenged. Much space is given to the explanations of the loyalists as to why they blockaded the school but it is left to other participants to point out the complete incoherence of the loyalist case, their inability to formulate demands that stayed the same from one meeting to the next, and how their positions boiled down to blind sectarian hatred. The loyalists deny that the campaign was directed by the UDA and it is again left to other participants to chart the movement of the UDA into the area following loyalist feuding and to outline a UDA bomb attempt at what was supposed to be a secret meeting between Glenbryn loyalists and Holy Cross parents. Even the bomb attack on the children is presented with a loyalist account of how it wasn’t really aimed at them.

There are extensive interviews with the PSNI/RUC. Leading officers are allowed to explain in detail, without critical questioning, how it was impossible to prevent the howling mobs physically intimidating the Holy Cross children day after day. It is left to the parents to point out the almost non-existent arrest rate, the refusal of police to take action when gross sectarian intimidation occurred in front of their eyes. How UDA members banned from the area turned up the next day. The ban on parent photographs is contrasted to the intimidatory recording of parents by both police and loyalists. As with the loyalists there is a lack of historical depth. The long history of bigotry and collusion by the police is not contrasted with their explanations.

Political distance

The parents make detailed and bitter critiques of both the loyalists and police, but exhibit a great deal more confusion and uncertainty when explaining the nature of their own predicament. Anne Cadwallader listens uncritically as they explain that they are new to political action, that the more seasoned political activists of Sinn Fein are in the residents’ committee rather than the parents’ committee, as they note in passing that Martin McGuinness was at the time the Education Minister and had attended as they assembled one morning, but had not joined the walk to the school to avoid politicising the issue. The average primary school pupil, without using all ten fingers to calculate, would quickly work out that Sinn Fein are leaving some political distance between themselves and defence of the schoolchildren, that the parents and children are being hung out to dry, and their problems may start with loyalism and the RUC but extend further to those they hope will represent and defend them.

The interviews end with the parents. There are no detailed interviews with the British or Dublin Governments, although both were busy offering to conciliate community conflict and the British, as state power, were directly responsible for the conduct of the police operation and for ensuring the human rights of the schoolchildren. Neither is there any real chronicling of the role of the Irish trade union movement, although ICTU made a major intervention, lobbied for grants to be thrown at the loyalists, and claimed to have opened new channels to loyalism that would resolve future conflict.

A book that relied completely on the facts to speak for themselves would be unreadable, so there is some attempt at analysis but, rather than any global political analysis we get some rather quirky and partial observations from two local academics with studies based on the area. Perhaps the most penetrating remark in the book is made by local academic, Peter Shirlow of the University of Ulster, who observes that loyalism is not an ideology, but rather a defensive tribalism that really doesn’t have a political programme and thus can’t be fully conciliated. In another section he adjudicates on an argument by loyalists that the Holy Cross blockade was the result of local frustration and the nationalist view that it was sparked by the arrival of the UDA following a loyalist feud. Shirlow argues that a UDA contingent did arrive, but simply acted as a catalyst for a sectarian logic already deeply ingrained.

Illusion of supremacy

Perhaps the most superficial part of the book is a potted history of North Belfast. It chronicles the flight of younger workers from the loyalist areas, the gradual decay of the areas, and the use of boundary walls (so-called peace lines) to defend ‘Protestant territory’ against a growing Catholic population constrained in tiny ghettoes. It then draws on work by Shirlow interpreting an anatomy of loyalist grievances and fears and arguing that they are too complex to be reduced to simple sectarianism. A study by Neil Jordan of the Institute of Conflict Research recounts Protestant fears of a shift from majority to minority, seen as part of a republican conspiracy. Despite many useful insights into the locality, any impartial observer would simply snort in derision. The ‘complexities’ are the outgrowths of sectarian logic, no different from the fears of the ‘poor whites’ in the US deep South with little but the illusion of supremacy to cling to.

It is at this point that the blind spot of Holy Cross rises up to engulf the whole book, the world view on which it is based and, indeed, the whole illusion of a new and more equal society in the North of Ireland. In the potted history of North Belfast the author seems blind to the fact that the sectarianism may belong to the loyalists, but the peace walls and the defence of ‘Protestant territory’ are the task of the state forces.

Anne Cadwallader and the whole of the media and political class seem blind to the elementary observation that a sectarian society is not defined by the bigots, but by the willingness of the state, media, churches, political parties and trade unions to support the sectarian logic on which the bigots operate. Yet the Holy Cross blockade was a classic example of the willingness of almost everyone outside the parents themselves to regard ferocious sectarian assault as community conflict.

The Good Friday Agreement is mentioned in passing in the concluding pages of the book. It is suggested that Dublin held back from support for the parents in order to save the deal and that Blair wanted to protect Trimble from a loyalist backlash. There is no reflection on how a deal that it was claimed would end sectarian conflict could not be used to resolve the blockade. Almost as an aside the book chronicles the collapse of the Human Rights Commission following the chair’s endorsement of police collaboration with the loyalists, yet this endorsement is in tune with the central plank of the Agreement, which is not about human rights, but about ‘equality of the two traditions’.

The hidden story of Holy Cross does not lie in the detail, no matter how shocking. It does not lie in crude sectarian abuse that the children were unable to understand. It does not lie in the gobs of loyalist spittle running down the faces of five year old girls. It does not lie in the bags of urine flung at them daily. It does not lie in the pornographic pictures displayed before them, some with their mothers and fathers faces superimposed. It doesn’t even lie in the blast bomb that endangered their lives.

The hidden story of Holy Cross lies in the Good Friday Agreement. It lies in ‘equality of the two traditions’ that allowed the children to go to school and allowed the sectarians to abuse them as they went. It lies in all the forces of society colluding to define sectarian intimidation as community conflict.

Holy Cross defined the political settlement in the North on the streets. It indicated that the new society resembled nothing as much as the old sectarian society. It told us that British imperialism, despite protestations of disinterest, still acts to protect the sectarian monster that guarantees its presence in Ireland and that Irish nationalism and republicanism have proved unable to defeat the that monster.

Faced with this reality Irish nationalism loses focus. No one is able to look closely at Holy Cross and say what it means. This blind spot defines the instability and contradiction of the settlement in the North. Anne Cadwallader provides us with much of the evidence, but is unable to provide the instrument that would enable us to decipher the hidden story of Holy Cross.