Marching Season in Belfast

By Eoin O’Donnell

As the taxi drives away from the nationalist Ardoyne area of north Belfast, the driver whips the taxi sign off the dashboard.

‘They know which companies are from which side,’ he says, driving through the pouring rain and on to the Shankill Road – a loyalist stronghold. A minute or two later the taxi crosses the open gates of one of Belfast’s notorious ‘peace walls’, built to keep two warring communities apart. It’s 9:30 in the evening and the gates aren’t shut until 10pm. That they’re open at all is progress in this corner of the world.

It’s 9:30 in the evening and the gates aren’t shut until 10pm. That they’re open at all is progress in this corner of the world.

Once through, the houses look the same, but we’re back again to another nationalist heartland, the Falls Road. It’s as quick and easy as that. Each area like this has its own plaques, memorials and murals for its dead and glorious. For Belfast, tragedies have been compounded by how compact and intimate it is. Aside from a few new rhinestones of modernity, it’s an aged industrial warren of less than 300,000 people, wedged between lush hills and dead shipyards.

The taxi is heading to a lock-up in the city centre. There’s street-parking in abundance, but everyone unlucky enough to have a car with a southern Irish registration is paying £10 for the security of the lock-up. That’s because it’s the 12th of July. The height of the marching season across the North.

Organised by the very Protestant and very unionist Orange Order, the parades commemorate the victory of Protestant King William over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. In terms of sheer drunkenness, the 12th of July is a kind of St. Patrick’s Day for many attending.

The marches are broadly viewed as sectarian by Catholic nationalists. The loyalist-republican interface at Ardoyne that the taxi has just navigated away from has become the focal point of controversy for the entire northern parades process, as a result of intense rioting in the area in previous years.

As the driver nears the lock-up, he gives his thoughts on the situation since the ’98 peace agreement.

‘Nothing’s changed,’ he says, ‘You still have to keep your fucking wits about you.’

‘Nothing’s changed,’ he says, ‘You still have to keep your fucking wits about you.’ Because he’s shorn-headed, hulked, and fiercely faced, his words are taken as gospel and it seems best to just shut the fuck up. That Belfast saw 1,600 killed during the Troubles, a significant proportion of the total 3,700 casualties, is another solid reason for the cagey approach to politics and history ’round here.

Author Ed Moloney did a decent hustle of putting those 3,700 deaths and the demented nature of the northern conflict in context, when he wrote: ‘Almost as many people died within a couple of hours on September 11th…but to conclude the Troubles were a petty affair would be a mistake. Had a similar conflict consumed the United States, the death toll would have been over 600,000…Nearly 1 in every 50 of Northern Ireland’s 1.5 million people were injured in the violence. The comparable figure in the United States would be 5 million…Very few people in Northern Ireland did not personally know someone who had been killed…and many knew several. There are many definitions of a civil war, but that is surely one of the most compelling.’

With the taxi gone and the ticket for a day’s parking at the lock-up paid off, random thoughts start arriving on the drive out of Belfast: Alan Clarke’s Elephant; the ominous Ballad of Claudy; those anti-terror adverts from the 90‘s; 14 Days; the Miami Showband insanity; the ensuing funeral where the father tries to keep his son’s coffin from the grave…all from a different time, another era. One that really only belongs to those who actually lived it.

The roads are wet and empty heading south towards Dublin, and the Twelfth celebrations have passed off peaceful for the first time in years. But it’s a peace that costs: a reported £55 million has been spent on policing the North’s various parade and flag disputes over the past 20 months alone.

The Heart of Midlothian Flute Band march in front of Orange Lodge members (both groups from Edinburgh, Scotland) on Bruce Street in Belfast city centre. Around 50,000 marchers attended 17 major July 12th parades across Northern Ireland.

Members of the East Belfast Parkinson Accordion band on Bedford Road in the centre of the city. An independent body, the Parades Commission, attempt to control and mediate the conflict over all parades in Northern Ireland.

Member of the Pride of the Hill Flute Band, from Carnmoney, Antrim, walking by Belfast City Hall.

A Police officer, hiding his identity from camera, videotapes the parades in Belfast City centre. Almost 700 people were charged or reported to prosecutors in Northern Ireland last year in relation to parade and protest-related disorder, and hundreds of police were injured trying to quell the violence.

A member of the Sons of Kai Flute Band from Rathcoole, Antrim, waiting for a taxi on the loyalist Shankhill Road in west Belfast.

A Pride of Ardoyne Flute Band member on the Woodvale Road, north Belfast. The band is reported to maintain links with the loyalist paramilitary organisation, the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force).

A child taking part in the 12th of July celebrations on the loyalist Woodvale Road in north Belfast.

Police in riot gear form a dividing line in front of loyalist protesters near the Ardoyne Road. 1,100 officers were involved in the security operation in north Belfast over the 12th July weekend.

A woman watches the police lines on the loyalist side of the Ardoyne security cordon. Members of the paramilitary UDA (Ulster Defence Association) attended the standoff during the day, as did senior loyalists from the UVF linked Progressive Unionist Party.

A religious protester standing by police vehicles on the nationalist side of the Ardoyne interface. From 2009 to 2012, Ardoyne nationalists rioted following the 12th of July parade. Last year, Loyalists rioted when the commission ordered police to block the parade before it reached Ardoyne.

A laneway leading from the police lines in to the nationalist area of Ardoyne. Traditionally an IRA stronghold, Loyalists say that dissident republicans within the community are the reason for the continuing conflict.

Children from the Ulster First Flute Band, based in the loyalist Sandy Row area of south Belfast. The band is reported to maintain links with the loyalist paramilitary organisation, the UDA.

Members of the King Edward VII Memorial Temperance Orange Lodge, based in Sandy Row, marching through South Belfast.

Orange Order members stand as the Ulster First Flute Band conclude their march by playing the British national anthem near Sandy Row, south Belfast.

The Whitburn Flute Band from West Lothian, Scotland, march by the Sandy Row Rangers Supporters Club in south Belfast.

Members of the Whitburn Flute Band in front of an Orange Order member in a loyalist residential area of south Belfast.

A resident watching the parades in a loyalist area of south Belfast. Not all Ulster Protestants take part, and it is common for many on both sides of the community to avoid the potential for violence or anti-social behaviour by holidaying away while the parades take place.

Sandy Row Orange Order members driving behind the parade.

Onlookers watching the parades in a loyalist area on the Donegall Road in south Belfast.

The remains of a still burning ‘Eleventh Night’ bonfire in a loyalist area off Donegall Road in west Belfast. The 12th of July celebrations traditionally begin with Eleventh Night bonfires across Protestant, unionist and loyalist areas of Northern Ireland.