Northern Ireland’s Marching Season Begins in a Fraught Year for Unionists

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The loyalist marching season kicks off in Northern Ireland at a time of growing tensions, driven by discontent over Brexit, that is also causing divisions within the largely Protestant unionist community.


DERRY, Northern Ireland — The curbs are painted the blue, red and white of Britain’s Union Jack in the Fountain housing estate, the only Protestant enclave in this part of Derry, Northern Ireland. The ashes of a bonfire fueled with the tricolor flag of neighboring Ireland lay in a central square.

Along these narrow streets, bands from the Protestant community marched on Monday to mark July 12, a commemoration of a centuries old military victory of a Protestant king over a Catholic one.

Such marches are a longstanding annual event in Northern Ireland, but the tensions growing over changes that Brexit has wrought in the region are casting the parades in a new light. There has been sporadic violence in recent months, and fears that the tense climate could threaten the landmark 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of sectarian strife and halted a 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland.

Across the region last weekend, bonfires blazed ahead of the parades, as towers of teetering pallets were set alight, casting a flickering orange glow on the faces of onlookers who gathered for street parties. This year, there are two additional dynamics at play — the centenary of the partition of Ireland that established Northern Ireland, and ongoing discontent with the post-Brexit trade arrangements for the region, known as the Northern Ireland protocol, that have heightened long dormant tensions.

The worries are centered within the mostly Protestant Unionist community, where tensions have grown over its relationship with the rest of Britain.

The protocol, a deal reached between the British government and Europe to avoid resurrecting a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, has come to embody broader discontent from unionists over neglect of the region by Westminster.

Many unionists feel alarmed or are resentful about the British government’s agreement with Europe, said Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s College in Belfast.

And Irish nationalists are upset that Northern Ireland is being removed from the European Union against the wishes of the majority who voted to remain in the bloc, she said.

While the Good Friday Agreement halted the violence, known as the Troubles, it failed to address the underlying sectarian roots and created a “fragile balance,” Ms. Hayward said, which depended on cooperation between Britain and Ireland, north and south, and unionists and nationalists.

“Across all three strands of the Good Friday agreement, that balance, the thing that has kept it in place has been taken away,” she said. “So everybody’s feeling that particular degree of insecurity.”

Members of the Orange Order, a religious and political Protestant fraternal order, march in the city — which is also called Londonderry by unionists who want the region to remain part of the United Kingdom — and lead the festivities marking William of Orange’s military victory over the Catholic King James II in 1690.

Many Catholic nationalists see the traditions associated with such celebrations, like the Orange Order marches and bonfires, on which the Republic of Ireland’s tricolor flag are often burned, as a provocation. Caoimhe Archibald, a local Sinn Fein politician — an Irish Republican party — shared an image of one of the bonfires painted in the tricolor on Twitter with the message: “This isn’t an expression of culture, it’s an expression of hate.”

But many Protestants maintain it is a vital celebration of identity and heritage.

“It’s a culture I’ve been brought up on, it’s a culture I’m proud of,” said William Jackson, 59, a day earlier as he played outside with his grandchildren in the Fountain estate ahead of the annual celebration. The neighborhood is encircled by a high metal fence. British flags are duct taped to lamp posts wrapped in barbed wire.

Born and raised in Derry, Mr. Jackson remembers well the old conflict — between Catholic nationalists, who more closely identify with the Republic of Ireland, and predominantly Protestant loyalists and unionists, who see themselves as British — and worries it would take little to set off renewed violence.

“That could all start again tomorrow,” said Mr. Jackson. “It doesn’t take much to light a fuse, in my opinion, that is just waiting to happen. Because sooner or later the Protestant community who have been let down on all occasions are going to stand up and say right, we’ve had enough of this.”

While the marches passed without incident around the region on Monday, some Derry residents were unimpressed that they had been allowed to continue amid the pandemic. A group of Catholic women watched with folded arms from a doorway as the parade passed by, and said they believed the marches only…



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