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.