Belfast and Northern Ireland: Safe for Travelers?

Recently, the U.S. and Australian state departments issued travel warnings to those planning on visiting Northern Ireland. But check any one of the many websites dedicated to Belfast and Northern Ireland travel, and they will be full of praise for Belfast clubs, shops, film and arts festivals, and generally easygoing atmosphere.

Cathedral Quarter on a rainy day, Belfast

Cathedral Quarter on a rainy day, Belfast 

 

Is the North of Ireland safe for travelers or not?

Many things about Northern Ireland are generally unknown to those from outside the North—the myths of Cuchulainn and Finn MacCumhail, the Giant’s Causeway, and the medieval walls of Derry, to name a few. Another is its biggest annual summer tradition, the Protestant marching season.

From June through August of each year, Protestants in Northern Ireland reinvest in and celebrate their British roots by marching through traditional parade routes. With their Orange Order lodge banners held high and their members in black suits and bowler hats, they march along with brass bands or fife and drum corps.

The 12th of July, especially Twelfth Night, is the highpoint of the marching season. It celebrates, with blazing bonfires and grand parades, the 1690 victory of England’s Protestant King William (Wilhelm) over the deposed Catholic King James in the Battle of the Boyne.

East Belfast Kids - Eleventh Night Bonfire

East Belfast Kids - Eleventh Night Bonfire 

 

The marches are a point of great pride for Northern Protestants. Though the Twelfth is not historically analogous to the U.S.’s Independence Day, it is celebrated in similar ways—marching bands, beer, hot dogs and hamburgers, family outings, firecrackers, and in places, outbreaks of unrest.
 
In many places in the world, including the United States, people are just now hearing about the Good Friday Agreement. Signed by nearly all major Northern political parties in 1998, it ushered in a period of unprecedented peace. Among many other provisions, major paramilitary groups such as the IRA and Ulster Volunteer Force have laid aside their weapons for good. The Northern parliament at Stormont is a power-sharing coalition of parties once virulently opposed to one another, some formerly associated with paramilitary groups. It is all a miracle.

But the process is still relatively new, and as all young trees, peace must be nurtured and protected. Particularly during the summer marching season, when emotions can run high. This can lead to sporadic protests and rioting in areas such as North Belfast’s Ardoyne area, once Protestant in population, but now predominantly Catholic.

Church door, Belfast

Church door, Belfast 

Church Angel, Belfast

Church Angel, Belfast

 

Protestant marchers’  parade routes can also lead them directly through proudly Catholic Irish nationalist neighborhoods, Lambeg drums booming and bands blaring. Catholic residents meanwhile insist they have a right not to be reminded of centuries-old losses, particularly the Battle of the Boyne, after which Ireland remained under the British crown for another 230 years.

Though some protests can turn violent, it is a cultural in-fight—mainly between very young males and local police—and nothing that a visitor need ever become involved in.

The real question is, why would any travelers seek out the ugliest aspect of a culture, when its restaurants, world-class theatre, museums, pubs, nightclubs, castles and stunningly beautiful coastline wait to be explored? In addition to which, visitors in 2012 will witness the grand opening of the Titanic exhibit in the Harland & Wolff shipyard—something the city is already gearing up for.

Pub window, Belfast

Pub window, Belfast 

 

The U.S. and Australian governments did indeed issue traveler advisories regarding Northern Ireland. But they (oddly) issued them after the summer fracas of marching season was already over. The eruptions were also contained and confined to certain areas, almost none of which are tourist-trodden parts of the North. Similarly, the car bombs placed by very small dissident, republican groups are an anomaly, and are not being tolerated by any of the political parties, the police or the population. Those events also occur so infrequently as to be peripheral at best.

The Northern people have been welcoming tourists in increasing numbers these past ten years. They are a friendly, generous, kind and welcoming people whose actual crime rate is very low.

Marching Band on Lisburn Road, 12th of July Belfast

Marching Band on Lisburn Road, 12th of July Belfast 

 

Cathedral Quarter, Belfast

Cathedral Quarter, Belfast

 

In addition to tourism being one of the most vital segments of the North’s economy, Northerners are perhaps able to experience with foreign visitors real moments of intercultural trust and celebration. That ever-increasing amount of good will in turn increases the feeling of good will among Northerners, toward their own communities and toward their historic Other.

Guiness is good for you, Belfast

Guiness is good for you, Belfast 

 

Having enjoyed a number of Belfast’s breezy, sunny summers since 2001, I always encourage people to visit Northern Ireland, and to enjoy—the music, laughter and storytelling in the pubs, the beauty of the land, and the neo-gothic architecture and youthful energy of Belfast, for a start.

Travel is exploration, and we carry our treasures of memory and intercultural enjoyment back home with us.

That, and the particular brand of joy to be found only in those six Northern counties, Traveler, should not be missed.

 

- Caroline Oceana Ryan, author of An Old Castle Standing on a Ford: One Yank’s Life in an Almost Peaceful Belfast (Eloquent Books), 2010
 is the Northern Ireland Editor for Wandering Educators

 

All photos copyright Caroline Oceana Ryan

 

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