Visiting Northern Ireland during the Parades Season
Okay so, we all know the North has an infamous past filled with violence and revolution and struggle, and we also know that this happened not so long ago, and is, in parts, still ongoing.
This shouldn’t put you off visiting Northern Ireland which is a relatively safe place to be a tourist, and is actually the reason a lot of people visit Belfast and Derry, to learn about the history and experience the culture.
For those of you who need some clarification, or who aren’t familiar with the politics or the general idea of parade season, here are some FAQ’s you might find useful.
When is parade season?
Parade season will generally start in summer around June and last until August. In all likelihood you won’t see any parades apart from on the pinnacle and epi-centre of parade season – July 12th.
What is parade season?
A specific faction of the protestant community, the Orange men, hold a parade every year on July 12th to celebrate the victory of William of Orange at the battle of the Boyne. Some of the marching, and parading extends around this date as rehearsals or smaller parades for a few weeks on either side.
How does this affect everyday life for me, the tourist?
Well, it doesn’t. Not really. The biggest inconvenience you should take note of is the likelihood of road closures. On July 12th no unnecessary journeys should be planned around northern Ireland (the republic is unaffected), and don’t be surprised if you are travelling along a B road in the north, or in the city itself and find yourself at a road block or queue of traffic because a group is marching.
I’ve heard there is trouble and the cities can be unsafe.
There can be trouble, yes. There have been instances of protests by local residents when the parades pass through housing estates or contentious areas and the marchers are not as respectful as they could be. It must also be noted that this is a time of heightened tensions between the communities of Northern Ireland and old slights are brought to the fore, there is a potential for trouble at interfaces especially in the evening.
Can I attend the parades and bonfires?
The parades are along public streets and are open for anyone to attend. They are followed by a party and bonfire in the evening usually in community areas such as open greens. I would recommend not attending the bonfires as a tourist unless invited by an acquaintance, as some communities can be quite closed and some events are private. On the day of July 12th there are many family fun days and events hosted, even a half marathon around the Titanic Quarter in Belfast, that would be fun to visit instead.
What do I do if I am in a situation where I feel unsafe?
My advice, is to be sensible. If you feel like you are in a dangerous situation or there is a possibility of violence, remove yourself from that situation. That might be to leave a bar, to walk away from a parade viewing point, or to head back to your hotel. If (and this is highly unlikely) you find yourself on the street and there is open hostilities or large groups of people milling around causing trouble, head to the nearest shop, restaurant or pub and stay in there. Inform the staff of any trouble and let them know you are a tourist. Most businesses that are open will have extra security or know what to do in these situations, they can also phone you a taxi to take you back to where you are staying.
It is reasonable to be prepared for any eventualities if you are staying in northern Ireland over the 12th. That can be as simple as letting people know where you are staying or if you are in the city, ask your hotel for the number of a few reliable, local taxi firms that you can phone to extricate yourself from any unwanted situations. Do not wear any sports or football shirts, any team or county paraphernalia when outside. If you choose to drive and your car has a ROI licence plate, be mindful of where you park it and try to keep it in a secure or private car park at night.
The 12th July as a whole has a festival atmosphere and is a public holiday, it is only a small anti-social element from both communities that starts trouble. Tourists visiting Belfast or Derry have nothing to worry about, and should only be mindful of their surroundings during this day.