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The background to Northern Ireland is very complicated and lengthy, and we don't want to re-start hostilities by saying something wrong! In short, since 1921 Northern Ireland became one of four countries in the United Kingdom, along with England, Scotland and Wales. The southern part and north west of Ireland is known as the Republic of Ireland. Both have separate laws, Governments, currency and religions.
Northern Ireland comprises two self-identified groups – the minority Irish nationalists Roman Catholics and the majority unionist/British Protestants.
And the long history of violent clashes between the two has, at times, raised security threat levels and made Northern Ireland risky for tourists.
“The Troubles“ is the term used to describe the four decades of senseless bombings, battles, riots and murders that has consumed the small province since the 1960's. This bloody violence continued to varying degrees, hitting its peak in the mid 1970s and including the nationalist hunger striker deaths in prison, until the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998 resulting in a ceasefire.
However outbreaks have occurred sporadically since, up to the present day.
Northern Ireland‘s capital and its second largest town (aka Londonderry) were the stages for most of the shocking sectarian violence during The Troubles. Now with the ceasefire they are safe enough to travel through, and parts of both feature striking murals that demonstrate clearly the views of both unionists and nationalists.
While doing your own tour throughout the Belfast neighbourhoods of the Shankill (a centre for loyalist paramilitarism) and the Falls (republican community stronghold) be mindful to wear neutral clothing and avoid any obvious displays of the Union Jack or the Irish Tricolour so as not to offend or inflame deep seated resentment.
The two roads are close-by and are separated by “peace lines“ - high walls topped with barbed wire. Prior to the ceasefire it wasn‘t a good idea (from personal experience) to drive down the Shankhill in a hire car with Republican plates, though things are little different now.
Take similar caution with obvious dress and sympathies in Derry between the Protestant Fountain estate and Catholic Bishop Street area.
The best advice would be, if in any of these areas where The Troubles have been known, if you sense tension especially among groups of working class men, walk away calmly. It is simply not worth buying into generations-old ideological arguments that have seen blood spilled many times in the past.
These days there aren‘t set up border controls and checks but once in Northern Ireland if you see signs notifying you are in a security or controlled area, then obey them. If you park your car in these areas it could be removed or destroyed.
Similarly if you are pulled over by police, just do what they say and act normal. And if you are asked to leave an area by security personnel, do so.
There are other obvious changes when heading from the Republic into Northern Ireland. All road signs are spelt out in English with no Irish translation, and distances are in the British imperial system of miles instead of kilometres. In the Republic they talk about the city Derry, yet immediately on the other side of the border, it's universally known as Londonderry.
Note that the currency used goes from Euros in the Republic of Ireland to British Pounds sterling in Northern Ireland. Many of the border countries do accept both currencies at service stations and shops and parking meters but don‘t count on it as a general rule. Go to an ATM and get the local currency when you arrive. Also, if you are looking to send some post, the post boxes are green in the Republic of Ireland and red in Northern Ireland.
As mentioned above the political situation has improved significantly, with the successful completion of a four-year term by the Northern Ireland Assembly in March 2011 and with it the devolution of law enforcement and justice authorities to the Assembly in April 2010.
However there have been a number of incidences that have sparked universal concern and an elevated risk assessment in Northern Ireland.
In April 2011, a police officer was killed in a car bomb blast on his way to work in County Omagh, which was the scene of atrocities in 1998 when 29 civilians were killed in a bomb attack.
Earlier in March 2009 two soldiers died in army barracks in County Antrim when two men believed to be Republican dissidents opened fire on their car.
Only days later a police station in County Armagh was shot up, leaving one officer dead. And a gun attack in the Shankill in May 2010 showed tensions were still high amongst loyalist factions.
Despite this, Northern Ireland remains a relatively safe place for tourists, and there hasn‘t been any indication of foreigners or tourist areas being targeted by terrorists. But with the increased attacks in the last two years, tourists are advised to be alert of their surroundings.
One of the riskiest times to travel to Northern Ireland is during the marching season in June/July that climaxes with the annual Orange march on July 12.
This march of the Orange men marks Prince William of Orange‘s victory over King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. However it is when these marches go through Belfast and other counties in Northern Ireland close to Catholic neighbourhoods that old passions are reignited and violence flares up.
The 2012 march through Belfast sparked a riot by Catholic youths. They threw bricks, snooker balls and petrol bombs at police who were gathered at the point where Catholic and Protestant areas of the city meet. Police responded with water cannon and plastic bullets.
In 2013 the decision to block a march by police lead to rioting by Protestant youths.
The tension is such that even Northerners leave the area during this march, so tourists should avoid it altogether.
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