Choosing Sides: Understanding Northern Ireland's Divisions

To understand Northern Ireland, you first must understand who is involved in the sectarian game, because the battle between Republicans (those who believe the North should become part of the Republic of Ireland; also called nationalists or "the Catholics," depending on who's talking), and the Loyalists (those who are loyal to the British crown and think the North should stay, as it is now, part of the United Kingdom; also called Unionists or "the Protestants") defines this region to this day. The problem is that both sides have splintered over the last decade, and so it's hard to keep up with who's who.

The Republicans are now divided among devotees of the IRA (the Irish Republican Army), the "Real" IRA (a splinter faction that branched off from the IRA), and Sinn Fein (also splintered from the IRA, and now its political face). Supporters for this side often have the green, white, and orange Irish flag hanging from their homes and businesses.

The Loyalists are divided among a variety of paramilitary groups, including the UDA (Ulster Defence Association), the UDF (Ulster Defence Force), and the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force). Much of the violence in the last decade has been the result of turf wars between those Protestant groups. Supporters of that side often have the British Union Jack flag flying from their homes and businesses.

These days, many, though not all, of these groups are more involved in organized crime than political struggle, and all of them have been lumped together by pundits under the new term "Irish mafia." Massive bank robberies (all of Northern Ireland's currency was withdrawn and reissued within 1 week in 2005 after a gang suspected to be connected with the IRA stole £22 million in a bank heist), importation and sales of illegal weaponry, and drugs are all blamed on the same factions that once battled for political power here. Most Irish people will tell you that they're sick of the lot of them -- however, don't ask unless you know the person you're talking to. It's an extremely sensitive subject that should not be brought up casually. If you're really curious, take one of the Black Cab tours and you can ask your driver questions to your heart's content.

Khaleesi Does It

The most popular TV show in the world is filmed in Northern Ireland, and the publicity that HBO’s Game of Thrones has brought to the region has been a massive boon for tourism. Major filming locations have included Castle Ward; Cushendun, and Ballintoy on the Antrim Coast Drive; and the Tollymore Forest Park in County Down. Several companies now offer locations tours, but some of the best, and longest-running, come from Brit Movie Tours.

The epic, 9-hour Northern Locations With Giant’s Causeway tour takes in many of the most scenic places used in the show. It really packs in a lot, in addition to various fan-related fun along the way, such as a quiz (dressing up is not unheard of). It includes a 90-minute visit to the Causeway, which hasn’t actually appeared in the show, but it would seem silly to pass and not stop. Tours depart daily at 9am from the main tourism office in Donegall Square, Belfast, and returns roughly 9 hours later. (No Monday tour from October to February). Tickets cost £35 adults and £20 children. Private tours, in a people carrier, can be booked for between £360 to £570, depending on the number of people (maximum six).

The Game of Thrones Filming Locations tour, another 9-hour event, takes in some locations to the south of Belfast, including Castle Ward. This option includes even more in the way of Westerosian high-jinx, including photo opportunities with the prop Direwolf pups used in the show (important note: not actual puppies) and the chance to sit on an imitation Iron Throne. Tours depart at 9am from Donegall Square, Belfast; from March to August, there are tours on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; in February and September–October, tours are on Saturdays and Sundays; November through January, it’s on Saturdays only. Tickets cost £55 adults, £40 children under 12, or £430 to £660 for the private version.


For details and booking call [tel] 0844/247-1007 in Northern Ireland and Britain ([tel] 44/207-118-1007 in the rest of the world), or visit

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.