There was a time when the conflict in Northern Ireland suffused popular culture, with its easily explicable cast of Catholics and Protestants and its deceptively simple narrative of joining the Republic of Ireland versus remaining under the protective wing of Great Britain. The IRA loomed large—an irregular force giving the Brits hell, a pre-Al Qaeda byword for terrorism. Film from the show “The VICE Guide to Belfast”.
The Troubles, as the Cranberries called them, were everywhere.
But in 1998, after a furious but low-intensity war that claimed almost 3,700 victims over 30 years, the two sides suddenly called it a draw. Political representatives of paramilitary groups and mainstream political parties hammered out the Good Friday Agreement, outlining a cessation of major sectarian violence, the decommissioning of weapons, and the release of prisoners affiliated with groups like the IRA and its unionist analogue, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). There would be no land swaps, no significant concessions made to those demanding a united Ireland, just a tenuous and long-overdue “peace process.” It marked, as an Irish journalist once told me, the effective surrender of the IRA.
But in the unionist communities of east Belfast and nationalist enclaves of west Belfast—working-class areas where militant sectarianism is one of few birthrights—there is little sense of peace and much talk of being “sold out by the tea-drinking politicians.” And every year on July 12, when unionists of the Orange Order celebrate the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James by marching through Belfast, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Troubles never ended.
In the lead up to this year’s Twelfth parade, tensions were running higher than any period in recent memory: It was only a few months since a 25-year-old Catholic police officer was murdered by dissident republicans (to dissuade others from joining the force) and just weeks after altercations between nationalists and unionists in east Belfast ended in riots and multiple shootings, including a cameraman. What better time to explore Belfast and marinate in the divisive hate?
Arriving a few days before the festivities, I quizzed a handful of young parade attendees, some from as far afield as Toronto, about the significance of the July 12 celebrations. A few offered platitudes about the brilliance of “King Billy” and the need to assert the primacy of unionist culture; the historical particulars of the march seemed almost irrelevant to its participants. It was odd, though, to listen to drink-sodden teenagers employ squishy political rhetoric rather than just nakedly sectarian slogans. They stressed that the march is a celebration of “culture,” one that is hamstrung by bigoted politicians and a needlessly aggressive police force. It’s the familiar language of multiculturalism, adapted for a schizophrenic religious conflict.