Thousands of pro-UK unionists marched across Northern Ireland on Monday, in a ceremonial tradition freighted with heightened emotion as post-Brexit arrangements stir up ill feeling in the divided province.
Marching pipe and drum bands filed through the streets of the British-ruled overseas region marking July 12, the anniversary of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne.
The battle saw the Protestant King William of Orange defeat the Catholic King James II and is celebrated yearly by predominantly Protestant pro-UK communities of Northern Ireland.
In Belfast, hundreds of musicians and members of the fraternal Protestant Orange Order marched in front of crowds of families waving Union Jack flags in celebrations pared back because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Last year’s parades were cancelled but on Monday they went ahead with smaller localised marches.
Many of the unionists marching are currently in political turmoil over a post-Brexit “protocol” for Northern Ireland they feel is prying the province loose from its place in the United Kingdom.
Since the start of the year the “protocol” has effectively kept Northern Ireland—and its 1.9 million residents—inside the EU customs union and single market for goods.
The special scheme prevented new infrastructure on the border with EU member the Republic of Ireland, a flashpoint in “The Troubles” 30 year-long sectarian conflict between unionists and pro-Ireland nationalists.
But many unionists feel the “protocol” made a hefty concession to nationalists orchestrating a slow slide to a united Ireland and created a border in the Irish sea.
At the Belfast march, one band arrived with a banner reading: “North Belfast says ‘no’ to Irish sea border”.
Anger over the protocol fuelled more than a week of rioting in April which stemmed from unionist communities and spread into nationalist enclaves, injuring 88 police.
There were fears the “marching season” which reaches its crescendo on July 12 could herald further unrest.
Marches and related bonfire events in the early hours of Monday passed off without reports of violence, however there remain signals in the unionist community that tensions are still high.
“We as a people feel that we’re being marginalised in our own country,” Orange Order marcher Fraser Agnew told AFP as the Belfast marches prepared to begin.
“We feel completely isolated and the British government, Europe, the Irish Republic are all conspiring against us. So it creates this siege mentality which can be a very dangerous thing.”
“Unionists are a bit confused, they’re a wee bit angry,” confided marcher Bobby Rainey.
“They’re certainly angry with the protocol, with what they see as the deceit of the English government.”
UK Brexit minister David Frost has said London wants a “consensual approach” to resolving issues with the protocol, promising to set out the government’s approach before July 22.