Another Year of Booze and Bruises at the Belfast Twelfth
July 12 is probably the biggest date in Northern Ireland’s political calendar. Each year, hundreds ofOrangemen and loyalist marching bands descend upon Belfast to parade around the city in commemoration of a Dutch Protestant defeating an English Catholic in a battle that took place over 300 years ago. As with everything that involves religion in Northern Ireland, the parade rout—and the Twelfth in general—is a deeply contentious issue. To the loyalists, it’s an important celebration of Protestant traditions; to the republicans it’s a bit like if the Afrikaans marched through the streets of Johannesburg celebrating apartheid.
The main parade travels from Belfast city center to a park on the outskirts of the city and back again. After that, various local bands split off into smaller parades to return to their respective communities. It is these return routes to the North and East of the city that have historically caused the most tension, as they involve the loyalist bands parading through republican areas. The largely republican Ardoyne district in the North has been a flashpoint for the past decade, with last year’s riots seeing police attacked with bricks, Molotov cocktails, and gunshots, leaving 20 officers injured.
Tensions have been running particularly high during the lead up to this year’s Twelfth. The Parades Commission, in an attempt to prevent a repeat of last year, banned the Orange Order from marching through Ardoyne after last-minute talks failed to produce a compromise. This is a huge source of contention for the loyalist community, who are already concerned about the “erosion of their culture” after the removal of the Union flag from City Hall last year and the ensuing riots.
Helpfully, the republican community has also been enraged recently, after a republican protest against the Orange Order’s Tour of the North resulted in Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly being taken for a ride on the hood of a police Land Rover. Northern Ireland Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin was hospitalized after trying to come to the aid of her colleague.
So, with both sides on the verge of a fight and the PSNI more tooled up than they’ve ever been following last month’s G8 conference, I went to Belfast to see if everyone couldn’t just put centuries of animosity aside and get along.
Bands from all over Northern Ireland and Scotland assembled at Belfast City Hall, while a short service took place at the city’s war memorial. Once that was finished, it was time to begin the march.
The morning parade was very family-orientated; the streets were lined with people in deck chairs, nobody was drinking, and this guy went around handing out Union flags to children, like a chuckling loyalist Santa Claus.
As the parade moved along its designated route, things grew increasingly raucous. I met these two, who had come over from Scotland. I asked Cook, the one on the right, why the Twelfth was so important to him. “I’m just over for a party with my pals, really, that’s about it,” he said, working his way through a bottle of Buckfast at 11 AM.
After a two-hour march in the July heat everyone was pretty exhausted, so it was time for a rest on the grass. On the stage, various Orange Order officials gave speeches about the importance of the event, but most people seemed more interested in sunbathing than hearing about how great William of Orange was.
Which isn’t that surprising, I guess, given they’ve probably been hearing the same speech over and over since they were kids.
After exploring the park a bit more it became clear the Orangefest crowd was made up of two distinct factions. On the one side, you had the Presbyterian types who set up marquees and bunting and gave off a sort of Jubilee garden party vibe.
And the second was the younger crowd, who took their shirts off, got their faces painted, and gave off more of a Gathering of the Juggalos vibe. Like this guy, whose Buckfast and Carlsberg with a vodka-based chaser made me think he probably wasn’t an expert on the Twelfth.
The Holy War on Irish Wombs
It’s a freezing Saturday afternoon in Dublin and, on the corner of O’Connell Street, a nervous young man called Dennis wants me to sign a petition with a picture of a dead baby on it. Dennis is 21 years old and doesn’t like abortion one bit. Especially not now that there’s a chance, for the first time in a generation, of liberalizing the law just a little to allow women at risk of actual death to terminate their pregnancies.
“I’m trying to keep abortion away from Ireland,” repeats Dennis, churning out the slogan being yelled by stern older men behind him. “If [a woman] doesn’t want a child, there’s obvious steps she can take to not have a child.” Like what? “Well, for example, abstinence,” he says, looking down at me uncomfortably. “Purity before marriage.” What about sexual equality? Dennis is blushing, despite the cold. “Well, I’m here against abortion. I wouldn’t have anything to say to that.”
It’s illegal for a woman to have an abortion under almost any circumstances in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, even if she might die in the delivery room. Every year, thousands of women with crisis pregnancies scrape together the money to travel overseas to have abortions—and that’s if they’re lucky. If they’re unlucky—immigrants, shift-workers… anyone who is too poor to afford a red-eye Ryanair flight to London—the only options are to take black-market abortion pills or be forced to give birth. Right now, members of the Irish parliament are trying to push through legislation that would allow women to have abortions if they’re at risk of suicide, but the Catholic hard-right are fighting back.
Since 1967, when Britain made abortion legal, over 150,000 Irish women have gone to England to end their pregnancies. They go in secret and, since that figure only covers those who list Irish addresses, the true number is probably much higher. It’s a situation that has been tacitly accepted in Irish society for years: abortion is sinful, but we’ll put up with it as long as it happens far away and the women involved are shamed into silence. “It’s an Irish solution to an Irish problem,” says Sinead Ahern, an activist with Choice Ireland. Now all that might be about to change.