Should safety in Northern Ireland be a major concern on your travels? The six counties of Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh, and Tyrone (let alone the city of Belfast) were represented as full of violence and dissent in the media and public perception outside Ireland echoes this. However, since the late 1990s the reality of life in Northern Ireland has changed dramatically and the country is safe to visit.
With the Good Friday Agreement, the voluntary decommissioning of arms by the Provisional IRA and the de-militarization of the six counties, life is definitely going back to normal. While so-called "sectarian" violence still occasionally flares up, especially around the 12th of July, the majority of the population wants to get on with their lives, and there is nothing militarized about visiting Belfast or other areas during this time.
For the tourist, this means that a visit to Northern Ireland poses no special threat, or at least not any more of a general threat than you would face at home, including the dangers of terrorism.
Crossing the Border
Crossing the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland has become less than a formality. There are no border posts and major changes are only visible in the color of postboxes, the currency used and the metric or imperial measurements displayed. If a postbox is red, you are charged in Pounds and the speed limit is in miles, then you are in Northern Ireland - in the Republic, it would be green, Euros, and kilometers. In fact, you will probably only know that you have crossed over into Northern Ireland when your cell phone switches over to roaming and welcomes you to the United Kingdom.
Signs of Troubled Times
Definite signs of Northern Ireland's troubled past will be encountered nonetheless. While armed police may not immediately attract the attention of visitors from outside Great Britain and Ireland (where the police forces are patrolling unarmed), there are still armored Landrovers that are visibly in use around parts of Northern Ireland. Even though they changed colors for a more "civilian" look". Police in the north do have firearms and this can seem jarring to visitors who are used to more lowkey patrols in their hometowns.
Police stations are still largely on a tight security regime with barricades, fences, and windowless walls. Not surprisingly the same holds true for any military installations. These days it will, however, be extremely rare to see daytime patrols by the British Army. If you see them, there might be an active incident occurring nearby and it is best to continue on your way.
The Sectarian Divide
On the civilian side of life normality sometimes means segregation, especially in urban areas. There are still very much two sides concerning Northern Ireland's relationship to the Republic of Ireland. Staunchly republican and fiercely loyalist residential areas can exist side by side and may be divided by so-called "Peace Lines." In reality, these can be high walls topped with barbed wire dividing the fractions.
While large areas of Northern Ireland seem normal enough, the visitor will inevitably see the territorial marks left by the most vocal actors in the communities. These range from flags to murals, even extending down to humble curbs, which can be painted blue-white-red in loyalist areas, green-white-orange by their Republican neighbors.
While driving or even walking through these areas should not be regarded as dangerous, strangers might attract some sort of attention. As a tourist, you would be regarded to exist outside the sectarian world-view. It would, however, be inadvisable to openly display symbols that are aligned with a particular political side. Dress for a neutral effect and avoid both the Irish Tricolor and the Union Jack as a lapel pin.
And the most important advice of all: Should you sense tension or notice suspicious gatherings of mainly young(ish) working-class men, simply walk away in a calm manner.
Additional Information Necessary
Other things to keep in mind are:
- Signs on the roadside denoting security or controlled areas should be followed at all times. Do not park your car here, as it may be removed or considered a threat to the security of the area.
- If flagged down by the police stop, wait and just act normal. This is not likely but can, of course, occur. There is no reason to be worried.
- Consumption of alcohol is forbidden in nearly all public places in Northern Ireland, from pedestrian zones to parks.
- And finally remember that the currency in Northern Ireland is Pounds Sterling (with several banks issuing their own notes), while in the Republic the Euro reigns. Lots of shops, gas stations, and even some parking meters and telephone cells accept the "other" currency in the border counties. But this is by no means the rule and should not be taken for granted - so get some money from a local ATM as soon as possible.