Hop on a plane to anywhere else in the world and you’ll find a parade. Except it won’t cause half as much trouble as the Northern Irish version. Most commonly associated with Pride marches and carnival, parades in Northern Ireland might not be quite as gaudy or samba-like, but we give it a good go.

If England is the matriarch of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland could be described as the weird uncle, or the estranged cousin of the family. It’s alright, I’m allowed to say that; Northern Ireland is my home. I love it dearly, but sometimes, even to us over here, it feels like that strange uncle. Our identity as Northern Ireland-ers (yeah that’s a thing now), is confusing. The impending Scottish referendum opens up the can of worms again. We are a trinity of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, which, at times, has been very unholy.

Allow me to reintroduce you to your estranged cousin.

For some nationalists and republicans, the British government is still considered an occupying force in Ireland with an illegitimate constitutional claim on part of the land. For Unionists living here, the political and, at times, physical threat of Irish Republicanism has led to in-your-face symbols of loyalty to the Crown. And so a Unionist culture of flags, bonfires, murals, Loyal Orders and marches evolved.

One community, yes, but with many identities.

That leads us back to the parades thing. It’s what we’re best known for this time of year. They run from Easter until the end of August. Last year there were 4,500 of them, with just over half of them coming from the loyalist/unionist crowd, with the nationalist/republican side covering 3.8%. (The rest are community, charity and social.)

This weekend hosts the highlight of the unionist/loyalist calendar. Bonfires are lit across the country on the 11th night, often topped with Irish effigies. The 12th of July hosts the biggest day of parading in NI. A quick history lesson. Stay with me. The 12th of July celebrations mark the victory of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 where the Protestant King William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James.

Here’s where things get messy. Most of the parades are entangled with core issues of identity, land and religion. And Northern Ireland is pretty small; we have a good few interface areas – where one part of the community passes close to another. Around 200 parades were deemed to be contentious, that is, have the potential to stoke angst.

Most people respect the right of those involved in parades to celebrate their culture, their, traditions and their freedom to march peaceably in most areas. But there are a small number of flashpoints where local tensions run so high that violence and rioting have erupted over the years. Recently this has become even more contentious and complex. The Orders and bands, loyalist and republican residents, the Parades Commission, political parties and the police all have a stake in these issues.

The parades are loud with traditional music and colourful with flags, uniforms and banners. Although the parades involve only a small minority of the population, many friends, family and communities line the streets to watch. For many others, the day is simply a public holiday and parades are actively avoided on a point of principle or convenience.

This is just scratching the surface; a few relatively objective starting points for my God-family across these islands. I haven’t even got into what Jesus-kingdom identities and relationships look like in this land caught between the tugs of a united Ireland and the United Kingdom. This is a space I love, of which I am a part and in which I’m praying, working, hoping for transformation.

For now, and as you hear about Northern Ireland in the news in the coming days, here’s three things you can do to get to know your estranged cousin a little bit more:

1. Read

Find out more about the nuances and complexities of our history and politics. There are some amazing books that give profound insights into part of these islands we all call home. Bear in Mind These Dead by Susan McKay is a great place to start.

2. Pray

There have been amazing advances here towards peace. Recently Martin McGuinness, a former member of the IRA, met with the Queen. ‘Enemies’ with personal hurts and losses in the ideological battle. There are still set-backs. Pray for breakthroughs in spiritual, physical and relational spaces.

3.  Come visit us

For real. It’s just a short hop over the pond. The scenery is stunning, Belfast is incredible and full of craic, and the people will genuinely make you feel like part of the family. I should really work for the Tourist Board.

Written by David Smyth // Follow David on  Twitter

David loves Jesus, his wife and family. He loves being in the countryside and randomly seeing animals while driving at night. Indoors he loves open fires, food and the craic. He is far too soft on his dog. He enjoys playing squash, reading non-fiction and passionately seeks God's peace in (N)Ireland.

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