Northern Ireland’s Orange Order members have paraded through Belfast under tight security, marking the anniversary of the July 12, 1690 victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over his Catholic rival King James II.
Crowds of spectators clutching union flags on Tuesday gave way to a heavy police presence – armoured white cars and officers in dark green uniforms – as the pro-United Kingdom marchers passed a nationalist, pro-Ireland neighbourhood, a reminder of the sectarian divisions that come to the fore as unionists celebrate “The Twelfth”.
The celebrations are the busiest day of the year for the police in Northern Ireland, which was plagued by 30 years of sectarian bloodshed over British rule until a 1998 peace agreement between nationalists – who are mostly Catholic and support joining the Republic of Ireland – and unionists, who are mostly Protestant, hope to remain part of the UK, and include Orange Order members.
The Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland estimates half a million people will take part in events at 18 locations across Northern Ireland to celebrate the culmination of the “marching season”.
Long a flashpoint for sectarian tensions, the July 12 marches and lighting of massive bonfires commemorate Protestant King William III’s rout of the deposed Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The parades come as the restive province wrestles with political crisis.
Northern Ireland is in its third month without a functioning government following May elections.
And in London, the resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson has created further instability, with Conservative Party candidates bidding to succeed him staking out positions on the post-Brexit trading rules for the territory, as agreed in the Northern Ireland Protocol.
As Orange Order members dressed in dark suits, bowler hats and orange sashes marched to the sound of fifes and drums past Belfast City Hall, Ian Crozier told the AFP news agency the order was “very clear that it’s robustly opposed to the protocol”.
“It’s about long-term political and economic divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK,” the Orangeman from north Belfast said.
The 43-year-old said discussion of the protocol was “clearly central” to the ongoing Conservative Party leadership contest.
“It’s good to hear that people are saying the right thing, but doing the right thing is much more important,” he added.
Across Northern Ireland on Monday evening, more than 250 bonfires were lit in unionist communities to kick off festivities.
The fires, often created by stacking palates into towering structures, have grown in size over the decades.
Builders in the port town of Larne are hoping to set a world record with a 200-foot (60-metre) blaze.
A man in his 30s was killed on Saturday when he fell from a 50-foot bonfire pile in Larne. The pyre was subsequently dismantled.
There will be 573 Orange Order parades through Saturday, 33 of which pass through Catholic areas where tensions could boil over.
About 2,500 officers will be on duty to head off any violence, the Police Service of Northern Ireland said.
Authorities are treating an incident on Thursday, in which petrol bombs and bricks were thrown at a bonfire site in north Belfast, as a hate crime.
Police have maintained a strong presence at the site.
The fire in Belfast’s Tiger Bay area has drawn the ire of pro-Irish nationalist residents living nearby, who say it is located too close to their communities.
Northern Ireland protocol
Months of loyalist marches in Northern Ireland leading up to July 12 have been characterised by unionist opposition to the protocol, which governs the province’s post-Brexit trade.
The arrangement, part of the UK’s divorce deal with the European Union, imposed checks on goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in order to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.
Proposed legislation introduced under Johnson to scrap parts of the protocol is currently making its way through the UK parliament.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party has refused to return to the province’s power-sharing government until the protocol is dismantled.
In March, loyalist paramilitaries were blamed for a hoax bomb attack targeting visiting Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.
The Republic of Ireland and the EU in Brussels accuse London of breaching international law with the protocol legislation.