Loyalist Northern Ireland
I`m in Northern Ireland and if it was not clear to me yet, it becomes clear to me today. I`m in the United Kingdom. Today, the loyalist community of Northern Ireland celebrates the Relief of Londonderry, that took place on a summer day in August more than 300 years to go. The traditional marches are on the agenda and there is no way of escaping them if you happen to be in Derry`s city centre today.
Nobody is allowed to walk the on them before the march starts, that is around 9 o`clock. At this time in the morning, the marching people are all members of the local organisation. They wave banners with the British and Ulster flags, and wear all sorts of army-like costumes. Dominant colours: dark red (`crimson`) and orange. Some regiments wear swords, while most are actually musicians. Flutes, bagpipes, and a wide selection of different types of drums.
`Our marches are no much different from the way other countries celebrate Liberation or Independence day`
The marchers have also brought marshals with them, so any problems potentially caused by people opposing the march can be solved before they escalate. They wear blue vests, but also carry crimson ties under those. As an outsider to the whole event, I would not consider them very impartial. The marshals are supporting the local police, who are abundantly present throughout the city. Many are hidden in small vans that look like minesweepers. When I ask a police officer whether they expect any riots, they deny. Their overwhelming presence, however, suggests otherwise.
How it starts
It`s 9 in the morning when the local `boys`, men and women of all age groups, start their tour around the city, marching on the city wall. The crowd measure half a kilometre and they produce a rythmic sound that can be heard up until miles away. Not many tourists have come out this early to see the march. There is an entire day program so no need for them to hurry.
During the preparations, I have a brief conversation with Paul (50, American) who is doing a round tour of Ireland. He believes the marches are a good thing and compares them to the civil rights marches in the South of the United States, which helped the black population achieve a better social position halfway the last century. I write down his words, but do reply that things are a bit different here. The people who are marching today are historically the dominant community in Northern Ireland, even though the differences have balanced out over the last two decades. He then says he`s happy that no violence is expected and that people enjoy their freedom of expression.
Throughout the past two days, I have been hearing different comments on the marches. Today, most people involved tell me it`s a traditional event that is part of the culture. The catholic community largely see it as provocation, even though the marches in Derry, unlike the ones in Belfast, do not cross the catholic neighbourhoods. I ask marshal Mathy (19) for his thoughts about the parade. He replies like many others do during the day: `It`s my culture and if other people see it as an offence, then that is their problem.'
After their circle around the city centre, the troops march off towards the other side of the river. That part of town is predominantly protestant. The regiments take a rest and wait for reinforcement which comes from all over Northern Ireland. Different groups are now scatted over the Waterside area and they practice their tunes while walking around. Some take a rest at the many stalls along the main road. Hamburgers are sold alongside with a wide variety of loyalist flags and clothes, mostly in red, white and blue - the colours of the Union Jack. The asortment is completed by Glasgow Ranger shirts, the big opponents of Celtic, whose T-shirts are worn in the catholic neighbourhoods.
Ready to go
The groups gather together at 1 o`clock to march back into the city centre - then filled with audience. Before that happens, I have a chance to interview some of the marchers. Colin (23, photo) and his friends are from the Belfast area. They explain me that these celebrations to them are what Liberation Day parades are like to other countries. I ask him whether maintaining this tradition does not promote segregation but he claims that such is not the case. He further explains that marching is done throughout all of Northern Ireland, at different places per weekend.
Ian (36) is part of another regiment and he tells me how there are even marching competitions that are not in any way politically motivated. The marches are a good way to get tourists to visit Northern Ireland and the whole day is simply about making music together and having a good time. Shortly after though, I am given a small leaflet called `No Surrender`, that explains the history of the Siege of Derry and the superiority of the British troups over the catholic army that tried to take over the city of Derry, now more than three hundred years ago.
Traditions and provocations
I leave the parade at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. Back in the hostel, I check with Ricky (21, from Wales) whether this marching idea is limited to Northern Ireland or whether it is on in other parts of the United Kingdom as well. He tells me that Northern Ireland is the only place where it takes place on this scale. He agrees that much of it is plain nationalism that is not supported nor really followed in other parts of the UK.
I conclude that making music and creating bonds go hand in hand, but including people to the party automatically means excluding others from it. And what I have seen of Derry is how one party (on either side) is celebrating at the expense of the other one. Let me finish this article with a positive note. This parade digs up sentiments from the past which in daily life are much less visible. During the last few days, I have been talking to a lot of people and many of them say that a good deal of integration is taking place and how two groups that used to hate each other to the bones now manage to live side by side in a city where every story has two sides to it.
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