It's Marching Season In Northern Ireland. Protestants Proclaim Allegiance To U.K.
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Protestant marching bands are stepping through towns across Northern Ireland today.
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INSKEEP: And they're moving after last night's bonfires. People built up stacks of fuel, in some cases as tall as a 14-story building, and lit them up.
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
It's all part of marching season, an annual ritual that Northern Irish Protestants use to proclaim their allegiance to the United Kingdom. NPR's Frank Langfitt spent time with a marching band called The True Blues in the town of Portadown.
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FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: So you can see the Union flags sitting out of windows and kids twirling batons. You can hear the bass drums and the flutes in the background - and people sitting out on their front yards. Watching this, it actually reminds me a lot of a Fourth of July parade in the States. This is Adam Love. He is the secretary of the band.
ADAM LOVE: Tensions are high in Northern Ireland. The Sinn Fein's trying to take everything that Protestants have away from them.
LANGFITT: Sinn Fein is the former political arm of the Irish Republican Army. It's now a successful political party hoping to win the most seats in Northern Ireland's Parliament next year. Today's marches celebrate the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II in 1690. Tradition holds that bonfires were lit to welcome William. Again, Adam Love, who's just 27.
LOVE: It's about time Protestants stood up and fought for ourselves because no one's going to fight for us.
LANGFITT: Scott Williamson is chairman of the marching band.
When you do these marches...
SCOTT WILLIAMSON: Yeah.
LANGFITT: ...What's the meaning behind it? What's the message?
WILLIAMSON: That we're still here. We haven't disappeared.
LANGFITT: Still here, haven't disappeared and still loyal to the U.K. but feeling increasingly isolated in a province Protestants once dominated. One reason is Brexit. Despite the promises of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Brexit led to the creation of an internal customs border that separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. Many loyalists think Johnson sold them out. Williamson is a truck driver, and he now faces new delays as he transports food back and forth across the new customs border.
WILLIAMSON: Have to sit for an hour or more in customs getting your paperwork checked.
LANGFITT: How does it make you feel that you have to go through a customs border in your own country?
LANGFITT: Protestants who want to stay part of the U.K. and Catholics who want to reunite with the Republic of Ireland fought over this place for decades. The conflict, which saw abductions, shootings and bombings, was called the Troubles. It cost more than 3,600 lives and scarred generations. Today, many Protestants fear the province is heading toward a referendum, which will lead to reunification with Ireland, the very thing they fought against. So I asked Adam Love.
Are you concerned about violence going forward?
LOVE: If things keep going the way they are, you can expect violence in every area, really. Anyone can expect violence because nothing's being done about it. We're abandoned. They've hung us out to dry.
LANGFITT: Protestant leaders say the marches and most of the bonfires are just community celebrations, but some loyalists use bonfires to burn Irish flags, as well as posters of Sinn Fein politicians. This year, loyalists built a bonfire across from a largely Catholic neighborhood. Most politicians see it as provocative, especially coming just three months after the worst riots here in years, triggered in part by the new border. John Finucane's a member of the British Parliament with Sinn Fein.
JOHN FINUCANE: It becomes less of a celebration and more a representation of hate, of sectarianism, of racism, of very much present and perpetuating a supremacist-type message.
LANGFITT: Sinn Fein politicians say they're not trying to take anything away from Protestants but just want a stable, equitable society. The Good Friday Agreement brought peace here in 1998, but divisions remain. Iain Carlisle runs the Grand Orange Lodge, a Protestant fraternal organization.
IAIN CARLISLE: The killing stopped, but it doesn't mean that the war stopped. There's a cultural war. There's a revisionist war. And that struggle, I think, for us, is very real.
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LANGFITT: The marching band is now arriving at a bonfire pyre. It's made of wooden pallets stacked more than a hundred feet high. At the top, ready for burning, is not only an Irish flag but a Palestinian flag. Some Irish Republicans fly the Palestinian flag because they relate to the Palestinian cause and see Protestants as an occupying population. Some Protestant loyalists see themselves as besieged by Irish Republicans and fly the Israeli flag in return. More than a thousand people gather around the wooden tower.
There's a guy walking along a ledge midway up the bonfire pyre. He has a giant, plastic can full of heating oil, and he's pouring it down the front. It's like a waterfall.
LANGFITT: As this last guy came down off the bonfire pyre, people were chanting UVF, which is the Ulster Volunteer Force, a paramilitary force that fought in the Troubles. OK, they're taking in the torches. They're lighting them up. Right now, the fire department is hosing off the buildings with fire retardant, white fire retardant - it almost looks like snow - because it's going to get so hot, they don't want the buildings to catch on fire.
LANGFITT: Oh, my God. There it goes. It just fell.
The flaming pyre toppled over, sending people rushing to move their cars to prevent them from burning. Fortunately, no one was injured. Scenes like this are an unsettling reminder of the power of national identity in Northern Ireland, where the vast majority want a lasting peace. But Dominic Bryan, a professor of anthropology at Queen's University in Belfast, has a more optimistic view.
DOMINIC BRYAN: You often hear people talking about us going back to the Troubles. In the next few weeks, you might see burning buses. You might see things taking place. And I'd like to knock that one on the head. We are not going back to that conflict. Why are we not going back to that conflict? Because we're a different society.
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LANGFITT: Despite such displays of Protestant nationalism, most people here no longer identify with the sectarian battles of the past. And many think a vote on joining the Irish Republic is inevitable. Navigating that will be the biggest test of keeping the peace.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Portadown, Northern Ireland.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOD IS AN ASTRONAUT'S "A DEAFENING DISTANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.