Radio: On the school run

28 October 2009

by Edward Wickham

WHEN Fr Aidan Troy, a Roman Catholic priest, returned to Belfast in 2001, he was heading towards retirement. He had worked in San Francisco and Rome, as well as in Southern and Northern Ireland. Belfast, after the Good Friday Agree­ment, was considered a straight­forward posting.

When, two months before he was due to arrive, he read of trouble at a school in Ardoyne, he assumed it would have all blown over by the time he started. The Choice (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) bore witness to how wrong he was. In conversation with Michael Buerk, Fr Troy described how he found himself at the centre of the Holy Cross School protests.

Since 1969, when boundary changes were made, the RC school had been stranded in a Protestant housing estate. But the children had faced few problems in their walk to school, until an incident in June 2001 ended up with the closure of the road.

That remained the case until the start of the next school year, when the parents determined to assert their right to walk their children to school. They asked Fr Troy to accompany them, “as insurance”.

Before that first episode — during which he, the parents, and the children endured the most appalling abuse — Fr Troy was unsure whether it was the right thing to do. His predecessors had backed away from conflict. But, after the first day, he was sure he had made the correct choice.

The accusation against Fr Troy — that he should not have been involved in (and thus by implication encouraged) a course of action that put children in such a traumatic situation for the sake of “grand-standing” his moral resolve — will not entirely go away, despite the robust way in which he dealt with Mr Buerk’s questions.

But the abuse and death threats that he endured must be regarded as sufficient atonement for any ego­centricity on his part. Saddest of all was the way in which the protests victimised children on both sides: when Fr Troy complained to the police about a placard accusing him of being a paedophile, the police discovered that it was being carried by a child.


On to lighter matters, and a wonderfully conceived new series in which Matthew Parris looks at the valedictory dispatches of British ambassadors. In Parting Shots (Radio 4, Tuesdays), Mr Parris delves into the National Archive to reveal a wealth of inappropriate attitudes towards foreigners, as expressed by the people engaged by the Crown to deal with them. The opportunity provided by the final dispatch of an ambassador’s career was clearly one that most found too good to resist.

So we hear from Sir David Hunt in Lagos, in 1969, of the Africans’ predisposition to cut off their nose to spite their face, an operation that they regard as “a triumph of cosmetic surgery”. Lord Moran, Ottawa, 1984, rails against Prime Minister Trudeau, “a well-to-do hippy and draft-dodger”. And spare a thought for Sir Anthony Rumbold, Bangkok, 1967, who might be considered the patron saint of the misdirected email.

His dispatch, in which he talks of the general low intelligence of the Thai people, and doubts the sanity of the Thai Prime Minister, was erroneously circulated to 120 gov­ernments around the world.

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