Northern Ireland still tends to be represented as "a war-torn country" in the media and public perception outside Ireland echoes this. But since the late 1990s reality has dramatically changed. 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 just wants to get on with their lives.
For the tourist this means that a visit to Northern Ireland poses no special threat.
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 colour 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 kilometres.
Signs of Troubled Times
Definite signs of Northern Ireland's troubled past will be encountered nonetheless. While armed police may not be immediately attract the attention of visitors from outside Great Britain and Ireland (where the police forces are patrolling unarmed), the massive armoured Landrovers still in use will.
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.
The Sectarian Divide
On the civilian side of life normality sometimes means segregation, especially in urban areas - staunchly republican and fiercely loyalist quarters can exist side by side and may be divided by so-called "Peace Lines". An euphemistic term for 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 more enthusiastic parts of the respective communities. These range from flags to murals, even extending down to humble curbstones - painted blue-white-red in loyalist areas, green-white-orange by their republican neighbours.
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 unadvisable to openly display symbols of the opposition in any area. 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 heeded at all times - parking a car there may lead to removal or destruction.
- If flagged down by the police stop, wait and just act normal - despite loads of old stories on the Internet there is absolutely no need to panic.
- Consumption of alcohol is forbidden in nearly all public places in Northern Ireland, from pedestrian zones to parks. For more information on legislation regarding alcohol read up on Alcohol Laws in Ireland.
- And finally remember that the currency in Northern Ireland is Pounds Sterling (with several banks issuing their own notes), 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.