The 12th of July is probably the biggest date in Northern Ireland’s political calendar. Each year, hundreds of Orangemen 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 route 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 centre 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, petrol bombs 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 have 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 bonnet of a police Land Rover. Northern Ireland Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin was hospitalised after trying to come to the aid of her colleague.
So, with both sides spoiling for 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 11AM.
After a two-hour march in 28-degree heat everyone was pretty exhausted, so it was time for a sit down on the grass. On the stage, various Orange Order officials gave speeches on 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 Creamfields vibe. Like this guy, whose Buckfast and Carlsberg with a WKD chaser made me think he probably wasn’t an expert on the Twelfth.
Unlike David, who I met queuing for sandwiches outside a marquee. He seemed nice so I asked him about the history of the Orange Order and the Twelfth. We had a perfectly nice, normal conversation until I asked him if he thought the event was worth the yearly clashes in places like Ardoyne.
“Little pockets like Ardoyne are always separate, always divided, and always annoy and irritate people. How can you share a future together when you don’t share the Orange Institution, why are you stopping the institution from travelling up the traditional route that they’ve been doing for centuries, you know, what’s your game?”
I believe their game is called "being Catholic".
Later, I came across this merch stand, which was selling CDs of the various bands playing on the march. This one contained such party starters as “God Save the Queen”, “UDA All the Way” and “Heroes of the UVF”.
But if music isn’t you’re thing, you could still join in the harmless fun by purchasing a toy assault rifle – I’m not sure if this is the exact model that was used in the Battle of the Boyne but hey, if it’ll shoot Catholics, it’ll do, right?
After two hours, it was time to hit the road again for the march back to City Hall.
The return march attracted a much larger, rowdier crowd than the morning parade had. The footpaths were spilling over and every bus shelter had at least five shirtless men jumping around on top of it with their tinnies.
The crowds on this part of the route were the most drunk by far – which was probably because a group of them (not pictured) decided to break into that bar in the background and make off with a king's ransom in rum and sambuca.
Once the North Belfast bands had split off from the main parade they marched up Clifton Street towards the Ardoyne. A number of police checkpoints had been set up to ensure that only the bands – and not their supporting crowds – made their way towards the republican community.
As the march approached the Ardoyne it met protests from local republicans. The police had cleared the roads to allow the parade through and the bands seemed to revel in provoking the republicans by playing loyalist anthem "The Sash" as loudly as they possibly could.
A few minutes later a group of around 20 protesters split off and ran towards Fredrick Street; I followed to find out what was going on. When they got to the bottom of Fredrick Street they met a small group of loyalists. Both sides faced off in a shouting match and then all hell broke loose. Police cones, stones and cans were thrown from both sides.
This loyalist got too close to the republican side and was knocked out by a punch. Two of his bandmates dragged him away from the fray while the rest continued to return fire on the republicans.
After five minutes of scuffles and stone throwing, the police finally arrived and got to work separating the rival factions, like sheep dogs with massive batons.
Police lines formed to block off the street and within ten minutes the two sides had been separated.
After the republicans had dispersed, the remaining loyalists demanded that the police let them continue up the street to re-join the parade. The police weren’t going to let that happen, though, as the main part of the loyalist parade had reached the roadblock ahead and were engaged in a stand off with heavily armoured police.
For whatever reason, the police seemed keen to keep their promises and deny the loyalists access to Ardoyne.
When I arrived, the loyalists had climbed on top of police Land Rovers and were throwing projectiles at police lines. The police responded with water cannon blasts that knocked the loyalists off the Land Rovers into mid air.
The enraged crowd fought back with petrol bombs, ceremonial swords, bricks and bottles – at one point even a wooden cabinet was hurled at police. In East Belfast, a similar situation had developed involving the returning parade, police and local republicans at the bottom of the Newtownards Road. Both riots continued late into the night.
When the dust settled and the crowds were finally dispersed, more than 30 police officers were injured along with the MP for North Belfast, Nigel Dodds. He was negotiating with police when he was struck on the head by a missile thrown from the loyalist side. After collapsing to the ground he was hit with a blast from the water cannon before he could be removed from the fray.
After the rioting, the Orange Order cancelled plans to protest against the Parades Commission’s decision to ban them from Ardoyne. However, large groups of loyalists gathered in North and East Belfast on Saturday and Sunday night, clashing with police. Four hundred extra police officers have been drafted in from the rest of the UK, bringing the current total of mutual aid officers to 1,000.
The police chief constable has called the Orange Order “reckless” over its emotive language and call for protests, while the Orange Order have criticised the PSNI for failing to protect marches from attacks by republicans in East Belfast.
Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness has said responsibility for the attacks on police rests on the Orange Order – as usual in Northern Ireland, everyone is blaming each other.
Follow Matthew (@matthewfrancey) on Twitter.
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