Members of the Orange Order began marching through Belfast under heavy guard on Tuesday, celebrating the victory of Protestant King William III over his Catholic rival in 1690.
Almost immediately crowds of spectators clutching union flags gave way to a large police presence – white armored vehicles and officers in dark green uniforms – as pro-British demonstrators passed the nationalist, pro-Irish quarter, reminiscent of the sectarian divisions that come to the fore, as in time of the trade unions celebrate the “Twelfth”.
The Orange Grand Lodge of Ireland estimates that half a million people will take part in events at 18 locations across Northern Ireland to celebrate the culmination of “hiking season”.
Long a flashpoint for sectarian tensions, the 12 July marches and the lighting of huge bonfires commemorate William of Orange’s defeat of the deposed Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and come as the troubled province struggles with a political crisis.
Northern Ireland is in its third month without a functioning government since the May election.
And in London, the resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson has created further instability as Conservative Party candidates running to succeed him have taken positions on trade rules for the post-Brexit territory, as agreed in the Northern Ireland Protocol.
As Orange members dressed in dark suits, bowler hats and orange sashes marched past Belfast City Hall to the sound of flutes and drums, Ian Crozier told AFP that the order was “totally clear, that it is emphatically contrary to protocol”.
“This is about a long-term political and economic rift between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK,” the north Belfast Orangeman explained.
The 43-year-old said the discussion on the protocol was “clearly central” to the ongoing competition for the Conservative Party’s leadership. “It’s nice to hear people say the right things, but doing the right thing is much more important,” he added.
Across Northern Ireland, over 250 bonfires were lit in trade union communities late on Monday to kick off the festivities.
Fires, often caused by the folding of the sky into towering structures, have grown in size over the decades.
Construction workers in the port city of Larne are hoping to set a world record by catching fire at 200 feet (60 meters).
A man in his 30s was killed Saturday when he fell off a 50-foot pile of fire in Larne. Subsequently, the fire was dismantled.
There will be 573 Orange Order parades on Saturday, 33 of which will pass through Catholic areas where tensions could escalate.
The celebrations are the busiest day of the year for police in Northern Ireland, which suffered three decades of sectarian bloodshed under British rule before the 1998 peace deal.
The Northern Ireland Police Service said about 2,500 police officers would be on duty to prevent any violence.
Authorities are treating an incident Thursday in which firebombs and bricks were thrown at a fire in north Belfast as a hate crime.
The police maintained a strong presence on the spot.
The fire in Belfast’s Tiger Bay region has drawn the ire of pro-Irish nationalists living nearby who say it is too close to their communities.
The months of loyalist marches in Northern Ireland leading up to July 12 were characterized by union opposition to the protocol that regulates post-Brexit trade in the province.
The arrangement, part of the UK’s divorce agreement with the EU, introduced checks on goods between the UK and Northern Ireland to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.
Johnson’s proposed legislation to repeal parts of the protocol is currently going through the UK Parliament.
The Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland has refused to return to a power-sharing provincial government until the protocol is dismantled.
In March, loyalist paramilitaries were accused of a fake bomb attack against visiting Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.
Ireland and the EU in Brussels accuse London of violating international law with protocol legislation.