London (CNSNews.com) - Police shielded young children attending a Catholic school in Belfast for the second straight day Tuesday as a Protestant crowd continued its attempt to blockade the building.
The disturbances are a continuation of unrest that started in June after Catholic republicans were accused of harassing pro-British, Protestant "loyalists."
Hundreds of protesters gathered on the first day of school Monday, some hurling rocks and bottles. Rioting went on through the night as the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland's police force, attempted to secure the area.
An RUC spokesman said by phone from Belfast that the police would protect children "as long as necessary." He said that exact crowd numbers were unavailable, but reports put the number of protesters at about 150 to 200.
The RUC and the army used riot shields, portable barriers and armored vehicles to create a passage to the school for the children. Pupils as young as four years old attend the all-girls school in the mixed Ardoyne area of the city.
Protestants claim harassment by Catholics
Among other incidents, Catholic republicans were accused of deliberately knocking over two men on ladders as they tried to hang loyalist flags on lampposts outside Holy Cross before the annual summer marching season.
A loyalist protester told the BBC that Protestant children had been beaten up, windows in loyalist neighborhoods smashed and elderly Protestants threatened by Catholics. She said the crowd was angry with Catholic parents rather than the schoolchildren.
On Monday, school leaders urged parents to take children to school via a back entrance to avoid the ugly scenes out front. But several parents said they would refuse to do so, and a spokesman for the republican political party Sinn Fein said that forcing pupils to use a different entrance would turn them into "second class citizens."
"Of course there have been difficulties in the area, but all children have a right to an education," said Sinn Fein spokesman Michael Browne. "These children have been denied that right."
Some republicans compared the scenes outside the school to racial violence in the southern U.S. in the 1960s. School officials were unavailable for comment Tuesday.
Peace talks in Northern Ireland hit an impasse last month after First Minister David Trimble, the leader of the province's largest party, the Ulster Unionists, said he could no longer sit on the power-sharing executive with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA.
The main sticking point has been the "decommissioning" of weapons used by republican and loyalist paramilitaries in more than 30 years of fighting.\f1\fs23