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Tension Lingers Below The Surface At The Loyalists' Annual March In Northern Ireland

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Northern Ireland now, it's come a long way since the troubles, the civil conflict that cost more than 3,600 lives. But tension, uncertainty - they remain just below the surface.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: In recent days, those tensions have been on display as Protestants loyal to the United Kingdom staged marches and lit huge bonfires in an annual celebration of their national identity. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports on Northern Ireland's marching season from the town of Larne.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: So this is about 20 miles or so north of Belfast in a wide-open field in a small town. And I'm looking out at a gigantic bonfire pyre. It's 147 feet high. It's made of wooden pallets. It almost looks like a pagoda. And this is David Murray. He's one of the people who built this.

DAVID MURRAY: It's just a pity she started leaning that way back because we would have went higher. We were a wee bit gutted 'cause we wanted to go for the record. But we're definitely going for the record next year.

LANGFITT: Murray and several dozen men built the tower over six weeks with more than $26,000 in local donations. The annual marches here commemorate a Protestant victory over Catholic forces in 1690. But bonfires like this one have contemporary political messages. At the top, ready to burn, is a sign that reads IRA for the Irish Republican Army and another which says Brexit. David Murray is angry that Brexit has created a new customs border that separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom and thinks this will help push Northern Ireland closer to reunification with the Irish Republic to the South.

MURRAY: We want to be part of the U.K., and that's trying to distance us away from the mainland U.K. And this is why there's a lot of tension at the moment.

LANGFITT: And what's your fear as a unionist?

MURRAY: Obviously, the fear is that this is going towards a united Ireland.

LANGFITT: Would unionists like you accept a United Ireland if there were a fair vote?

MURRAY: No. I just wouldn't want to live under that flag, you know? My allegiance is to the United Kingdom.

LANGFITT: The troubles officially ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement. But for many here, the pain remains raw.

IAN CARLISLE: This organization itself lost 340 members at the hands of terrorism.

LANGFITT: Ian Carlisle runs the Grand Orange Lodge, a Protestant fraternal organization. Inside the lodge's museum, he shows me a large computer screen with a searchable database of those who were killed.

CARLISLE: The single worst atrocity for us happened in September of 1970, when the IRA burst into a small hall like this and shot dead five of our members at a lodge meeting. There's an uneasy peace. There's an angry peace. And I never will forget the people who butchered our community, absolutely butchered, breaking into churches and shooting unarmed - sorry.

LANGFITT: Unlike South Africa, Northern Ireland has never had a truth and reconciliation process, so victims' families on both sides feel they've never received justice. I met Gary Duffy as he was standing in the middle of the road with families of victims demanding accountability from British soldiers. Duffy was there for his great-uncle.

GARY DUFFY: He was standing outside of a pub, waving a white flag when a sniper from atop of the flats shot him in the head.

LANGFITT: Duffy, 29, was in elementary school when the troubles ended. He wants to see a united Ireland, but like the vast majority here, he absolutely does not want to go back to the violence of the 1970s and 1980s.

DUFFY: I have been a major recipient of the peace dividend. My family are from a very working-class community. And I've moved on and become a lawyer.

LANGFITT: A human rights lawyer. While some here are still shaped by the troubles, polls show more and more people no longer define themselves in the binary language of division - Protestant versus Catholic, British unionist versus Irish nationalist. As Northern Ireland navigates the impact of Brexit and an uncertain future, many think that post-conflict identity is its greatest hope.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Larne, Northern Ireland.

(SOUNDBITE OF ULRICH SCHNAUSS' "KNUDDELMAUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.