Northern Ireland is an administrative region and one of four constituent parts of the United Kingdom. It is located on the island of Ireland, where it shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland, the only part of the United Kingdom with an international land border. The constitutional origins lie in the Government of Ireland Act, 1920.
It covers 14,139 square kilometres (5,459 square miles) in the north-east of the island of Ireland, about a sixth of the total area of the island, and has a population of 1,685,000 (April 2001) — between a quarter and a third of the island's total population.
A small majority of the present-day population are unionist and wish to remain part of the United Kingdom, but a significant minority, known as nationalists, want to see a united Ireland. These two views are linked to deeper cultural divisions. Unionists are predominantly Protestant and often descendants of Scottish and English (mainly Scottish) settlement in previous centuries, while nationalists are predominantly Catholic and usually descend from the Irish population predating such settlement. The conflict between these two sets of identities, including alleged discrimination against nationalists under the Stormont government (1920–72) giving rise to the nationalist "Civil Rights Movement" in the 1960s, and eventually to a long-running conflict known as The Troubles. This has gone through its most violent phase in recent times between 1968–1994. The main actors have been paramilitaries representing minorities from both sides of the divide and the RUC and British army representing the British authorities and the Northern Ireland state. As a consequence of the worsening security situation, self-government for Northern Ireland was suspended in 1972. Since the mid-1990s, the main paramilitary group, the Provisional IRA has observed an uneasy ceasefire. Following negotiations, the Belfast Agreement of 1998 provides for an elected Northern Ireland Assembly, and a power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive comprising representatives of all the main parties. These institutions have been suspended since 2002 because of allegations of spying by people working for Sinn Fein at the Assembly.
Flag of Northern Ireland from 1953
, used unofficially in sporting and international contexts.
Today, Northern Ireland comprises a diverse patchwork of community rivalries, represented in some areas by whole communities where lamp posts and some homes fly the Irish national flag, the tricolour, or the Union Flag, the symbol of British identity, while even the kerbstones in less affluent areas get painted green-white-orange or red-white-blue, depending on whether a local community expresses nationalist/republican or unionist/loyalist sympathies.
There is no longer an official Flag of Northern Ireland, as the 'Northern Ireland Flag' was abolished along with the Parliament of Northern Ireland in 1972. Unionists tend to use the Union flag and sometimes the Northern Ireland Flag, while Nationalists typically use the Flag of Ireland. Both sides also occasionally use the flags of secular and religious organizations they belong to. The Northern Ireland flag is based on the Ulster flag. Some groups, including the Irish Rugby Football Union have used the Flag of St. Patrick as a symbol of Ireland which lacks the same nationalist or unionist connotations, but even this is felt by some to be a loyalist flag, as it was designed by the British and is used by some British army regiments. No universally acceptable symbol has yet been found.
Similarly, there is no longer an official national anthem. At most events requiring a Northern Irish national anthem, God Save The Queen is played, although sometimes the old anthem A Londonderry Air, perhaps better known outside Northern Ireland as the tune of Danny Boy, is used.
Geography and climate
Main article: Geography of Ireland, Geography of the United Kingdom
Northern Ireland was covered by an ice sheet for most of the last ice age and on numerous previous occasions, the legacy of which can be seen in the extensive coverage of drumlins in Counties Fermanagh, Armagh, Antrim and particularly Down. The centrepiece of Northern Ireland's geography is Lough Neagh, at 392 km² the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles. A second extensive lake system is centred on Lower and Upper Lough Erne in Fermanagh.
There are substantial uplands in the Sperrin Mountains (an extension of the Caledonian fold mountains ) with extensive gold deposits, granite Mourne Mountains and basalt Antrim Plateau , as well as smaller ranges in South Armagh and along the Fermanagh–Tyrone border. None of the hills is especially high, with Slieve Donard in the dramatic Mournes reaching 848 metres, Northern Ireland's highest point. The volcanic activity which created the Antrim Plateau also formed the eerily geometric pillars of the Giant's Causeway.
The Lower and Upper River Bann, River Foyle and River Blackwater form extensive fertile lowlands, with excellent arable land also found in North and East Down, although much of the hill country is marginal and suitable largely for animal husbandry.
The valley of the River Lagan is dominated by Belfast, whose metropolitan area includes over a third of the population of Northern Ireland, with heavy urbanisation and industrialisation along the Lagan Valley and both shores of Belfast Lough .
The whole of Northern Ireland has a temperate maritime climate , rather wetter in the west than the east although cloud cover is persistent across the region. The weather is unpredictable at all times of the year, and although the seasons are distinct they are considerably less pronounced than in interior Europe or the eastern seaboard on North America. Average daytime maximums in Belfast are 6.5°C in January and 17.5°C in July. The damp climate and extensive deforestation in the 16th and 17th Centuries results in much of the region being covered in rich green grassland.
The Counties in Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland consists of six Irish counties:
These counties are no longer used for local government purposes; instead there are twenty-six districts of Northern Ireland which have different geographical extents, even in the case those named after the counties from which they derive their name. Fermanagh District Council most closely follows the borders of the county it takes its name from.
Towns and villages
Main article: List of towns in Northern Ireland
Ahoghill, Armagh, Antrim
Ballycastle, Ballyclare, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Banbridge, Bangor, Belfast, Bushmills
Carnmoney, Carrickfergus,Comber, Coleraine, Cookstown, Craigavon
Donaghadee, Downpatrick, Dundonald , Dungannon, Dungiven
Larne, Limavady, Lisburn, Londonderry, Lurgan
Newcastle, Newry, Newtownards, Newtownstewart
Portrush, Portstewart, Portadown, Portaferry
Places of interest
Variations in Geographic nomenclature
Many people inside and outside Northern Ireland use other names for the entity, as part of a linguistic agenda to define the nature of the state from their historic, cultural or political viewpoint.
The most common names used are
Ulster - to suggest that Northern Ireland has an older ancestry that predates its founding in 1921, dating back both to the Plantation of Ulster in the late middle ages and to the millennium-old province of Ulster, one of four provinces on the island of Ireland. The island's province of Ulster covers a greater landmass than Northern Ireland: 6 of its counties are in Northern Ireland, 3 in the Republic of Ireland.
- The Province - to again link to the historic Irish province of Ireland, with its mythology.
- North of Ireland - to link Northern Ireland to the island of Ireland, by describing, as is technically accurate in geography, the state as the 'north of Ireland' and so by implication playing down Northern Ireland's links with the United Kingdom.
- The Six Counties - language which avoids using the name given to the state by the British-enacted Government of Ireland Act, 1920. (The Republic is similarly described as the Twenty-Six Counties.) Some of the users of this language fear using the official name of the states would imply acceptance of the legitimacy of the Government of Ireland Act.
Anti-Belfast Agreement Republicans
- The Occupied Six Counties - language which promotes the views of some extreme republicans that the partition of Ireland in 1920 was illegal and illegitimate and that Britain is still "occupying Northern Ireland" against the will of the Irish nation. (The Republic, whose existence is also opposed by such groups, is described as being "The Free State, referring to the Irish Free State, the Republic's old name.)
The use of language for Northern Irish geography
Disagreement on nomenclature, and the reading of political symbolism into the use or non-use of a word, also attaches to some urban centres. Whereas nationalists and republicans call Northern Ireland's second city Derry unionists call it Londonderry.
Choice of language and nomenclature in Northern Ireland often reveals the cultural, ethnic and religious identity of the speaker. The first Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Seamus Mallon was criticised by unionists for always calling the state the "North of Ireland" while Sinn Féin has been criticised in the media in the Republic for continuing to call the state the "Six Counties" even after it signed up to the Belfast Agreement and sat in the government of Northern Ireland. Nationalists have in turn criticised the main unionist leader, the Rev Ian Paisley, for constantly referring to the state as "Ulster".
Those who do not belong to any group but lean towards one side often tend to use the language of that group. Supporters of unionism in the British media (notably the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express) regularly call Northern Ireland "Ulster" while nationalist and republican-leaning media outlets in the Republic (such as Daily Ireland) almost always use "North of Ireland" or the "Six Counties".
State institutions and cultural organisations in Northern Ireland, particularly those pre-dating the 1980s, often used the word "Ulster" in their title; for example, the University of Ulster, the Ulster Orchestra and the Ulster Hall.
Many news bulletins since the 1990s have opted avoid all contentious terms and use either the official name, Northern Ireland, or the shorter term, "the North". "The Province", though of unionist origins, is often seen as reasonably acceptable, or perhaps the least unacceptable, to both sides. For the North's second city, many broadcasting outlets use both names interchangably, often starting a report with "Londonderry" and then using "Derry" in the rest of the report.
Main article: History of Northern Ireland; for events before 1900 see History of Ireland.
The area now known as Northern Ireland has had a diverse history. From serving as the bedrock of Irish resistance in the era of the plantations of Queen Elizabeth and James I in other parts of Ireland, it became itself the subject of major planting of Scottish and English settlers after the Flight of the Earls in 1607 (when the native aristocracy left en masse).
The all-island Kingdom of Ireland (1541-1801) was incorporated into the United Kingdom in 1801 under the terms of the Act of Union, under which the kingdoms of Ireland and Great Britain merged under a central parliament, government and monarchy based in London. In the early 20th century Unionists, led by Sir Edward Carson, opposed the introduction of Home Rule in Ireland. Unionists were in a minority on the island of Ireland as a whole, but formed a majority in the northern province of Ulster. Therefore, after the First World War, Ireland was partitioned in 1921 under the terms of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 between six of the nine Ulster counties in the northeast (forming Northern Ieland) and the remaining twenty-six counties of the south and west (forming Southern Ireland and became the Irish Free State in 1922). When the latter achieved dominion status, the six Northern Ireland counties — under the procedures laid out in the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1921 — opted out, and so remain as part of the United Kingdom.
The Ireland Act 1949 gave the first legal guarantee to the Parliament and Government that Northern Ireland would not cease to be part of the United Kingdom without consent of the majority of its citizens, this was most recently reaffirmed by the Northern Ireland Act 1998. This status was echoed in the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, which was signed by the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Bunreacht na hÉireann, the constitution of the Republic, was amended in 1999 to remove what was interpreted as a 'claim' to theoretically rule Northern Ireland (in Article 2), a claim qualified by an acknowledgement that the south would only in fact rule the twenty-six county southern state, its seas and territorial waters, in Article 3. The new Articles 2 & 3, added to the Bunreacht to replace the earlier articles. implicitly acknowledge that the status of Northern Ireland, and its relationships with the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, would only be changed with the agreement of the people of Northern Ireland. An acknowledgement that a decision on whether to remain in the United Kingdom or join the Republic of Ireland rests with the people of Northern Ireland was also central to the Belfast Agreement, which was signed in 1998 and ratified by plebiscites held simultanously in both Northern Ireland and the Republic.
A plebiscite within Northern Ireland on whether it should remain in the United Kingdom, or join the Republic, was held in 1973. The vote went heavily in favour of maintaining the status quo, in part because many nationalists desiring unity with the south opted not to take part. Though legal provision remains for holding another plebiscite, and Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble some years ago advocated the holding of such a vote, no plans for such a vote have been adopted as of 2005.
Demographics and politics
The vast majority of the population of Northern Ireland identifies with one of two different groups, unionists and nationalists. Both sides of the community are often described by their predominant religious attachments. Unionists are predominantly Protestant (the major Protestant faith is Presbyterianism, the second in terms of size is the Church of Ireland), while nationalists are predominantly Catholic. However, contrary to widespread belief, not all Catholics necessarily support nationalism, and not all Protestants necessarily support unionism. It is also important to note that, in parallel with other parts of Europe, the proportion of the population practising their religious beliefs has fallen dramatically in recent decades, particularly among Catholics and adherents of mainstream Protestant denominations. This has not necessarily resulted in a weakening of communal feeling.
Once established under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, Northern Ireland was structured geographically (see gerrymander) so as to provide unionist majorities in its local government system, with significantly nationalist areas producing unionist majorities through the granting of voting rights exclusively to property owners (where most Catholics were renting and most Protestants were owners). Anger of local government control by Protestants, and the awarding of housing to Protestants to ensure Unionist majorities in areas with large Catholic populations, played a significant part in creating the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, with a sit-in by nationalist politician Austin Currie in a house granted to an unmarried protestant woman ahead of a large homeless Catholic family triggering off the movement. 
In recent decades the Catholic population has increased in percentage terms within Northern Ireland, while the Presbyterian and Church of Ireland population percentages have decreased. However the decreasing size of Catholic families and the increasing use of birth control among the Catholic community and led to a slowing down in the growth of the Catholic population. Statisticians predict both communities will achieve close to parity in size, with Protestants dominant primarily to the east of Northern Ireland and Catholics dominant to the west and south. However as of 2005 most statisticians predict that Protestants will continue to slightly outnumber Catholics in Northern Ireland as a whole. As not all Catholics are nationalists, they predict a continuing majority in favour of the union with the United Kingdom. However this is disputed by a minority of statisticians.
The religious affiliations, based on census returns, have changed as follows between 1961 and 2002:
Religious Affiliations in Northern Ireland 1961–2001
|Church of Ireland (Protestant)
Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey 2003 
Most Northern Irish Catholics support unification, although opinion polls have shown a minority who support remaining part of the UK, usually while continuing to support nationalist political parties. This proportion has slowly but steadily declined over the course of the Troubles. The proportion of Protestants who wish to join the Republic is smaller. There are also considerable numbers of people who give ambiguous answers to questions about the future constitutional status of Northern Ireland.
While elections in Northern Ireland are often characterised as mini-referenda on the constitutional question, this is too simplistic an analysis. Voters may also perceive voting to be about strengthening the hand of their section of the community within Northern Ireland, or about gaining advantage for their social class.
Northern Ireland currently has 18 seats in the United Kingdom House of Commons. The Northern Ireland Assembly has 108 MLAs, although this is currently in suspension. It is also represented in the European Parliament with 3 seats, and at local level by 26 district councils .
Sinn Féin, currently the biggest of the nationalist parties in Northern Ireland, has campaigned for a broadening of the franchise of Northern Ireland voters to allow them to vote in elections to choose the President of Ireland. It has also demanded that Northern Ireland MEPs and MPs be allowed participate in debates, albeit without votes, in the lower house of the parliament of the Republic of Ireland, Dáil Éireann. No other party in either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland has endorsed the ideas, with some parties and newspapers in the Republic dismissing them.
Political parties in Northern Ireland can be divided into three distinct categories: unionist parties, such as the Democratic Unionist Party, the Ulster Unionist Party, and other smaller parties such as the Progressive Unionist Party and the United Kingdom Unionist Party; nationalist parties, Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP); and cross-community parties such as the Alliance Party and the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition.
The Ulster Unionists were historically a cross-class massenpartei who formed the government of Northern Ireland from its creation until 1972, although since the rise of the DUP in the 1970s their support has been more middle-class. Until 1972 the UUP's members of the House of Commons took the Conservative Party whip, although for the past 32 years they have sat as a party in their own right. The UUP's member of the European Parliament belongs to the European People's Party group.
The DUP are a more complex mixture than the other major parties — combining support from rural evangelicals and from urban, secular, working-class voters. The party is firmly to the right on issues such as abortion, capital punishment, European integration and equal opportunities, although the party seems to be moderating its stance on gay rights. Conversely, the DUP often support social programmes which benefit their working class or agricultural base, for example, free public transport for the elderly and European Union agricultural subsidies. The DUP have grown in recent years as they are the only major party to oppose the Good Friday Agreement. Their MEP, Jim Allister, sits as an Independent in the European Parliament, but is perceived to be close to the Independence and Democracy group.
The smaller Progressive Unionist Party and New Ulster Political Research Group are linked with the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association respectively. The UK Unionist Party is essentially a one-man show led by Robert McCartney MLA for North Down.
Similarly, on the nationalist side of the political spectrum, Sinn Féin has overtaken the traditionally dominant SDLP in recent elections. Sinn Féin is a radical socialist revolutionary party, theoretically committed to espousing an all-Ireland Socialist Republic, and linked with the IRA. The relationship between Sinn Féin and the IRA is not clear, with many people believing them to be one and the same, and referring to them as "Sinn Féin/IRA" and with allegations from some that they share the same leadership. Traditionally the party of the urban Catholic working-class and a number of republican rural areas, since the IRA ceasefires of the mid-1990s it has expanded its base considerably, and has overtaken the long-dominant SDLP in terms of vote share. Many of their opponents, especially more hardline republicans, contend that its experience of government has blunted the edge of the party's revolutionary enthusiasm.
The SDLP are a nominally social democratic party and a full member of the Party of European Socialists and Socialist International. However, as the Northern Irish party system is not based on socio-economic divisions, it inevitably attracts a wider spectrum of opinion and has a middle-class support base. The SDLP nominally support Irish unification, but reject utterly the use of violence as a means to that end. The SDLP has lost considerable support in the past decade, with the retirement of key figures such as former leader John Hume and deputy leader Seamus Mallon and the IRA's cessation of violence. The party has been torn between members who wish to follow a post-nationalist agenda focusing primarily on "bread and butter issues" (taxation, employment, education, health, etc) and those who wish to follow a more traditionalist nationalist campaign to challenge the more republican Sinn Féin. In March 2005 the party launched a major policy programme on working to a united Ireland, suggesting that it has opted to focus on traditional issues of identity (Irish or British, unionist or nationalist) than on economic or social issues.
Among the cross-community parties, the Alliance Party draws its support mainly from middle-class professionals in the suburbs of Belfast. It professes to be the only significant party which does not base its political stance around the constitutional question, and is a member of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party and Liberal International.
The future of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition is in doubt after they lost both of their seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly. This feminist party drew support predominantly from middle-class professionals, and not exclusively from women, particularly among those working in the public or voluntary sectors.
Other parties who contest elections in Northern Ireland include the Green Party, the Workers Party and the Northern Ireland branch of the Conservative Party.
Fianna Fáil, the dominant party in the Republic, has opened a number of cumainn (branches) within Northern Ireland. The leadership however as of 2005 has decided not to take part in electoral politics in Northern Ireland. Others both within Fianna Fáil and the SDLP (including former SDLP European Elections candidate Martin Morgan ) have advocated an alliance, or even a merger, between both parties. However others in both parties are hostile to the idea, with some in the SDLP pointing out to the shared left wing links between the party and the Irish Labour Party. Others in the SDLP are also closer to the Republic's second biggest party, Fine Gael and oppose a merger with that party's rival, Fianna Fáil.
There are also two tiny parties seeking independence for Northern Ireland, although this is often perceived to be an ethnically Protestant or Unionist ideal with little real support.
Some commentators believe there are indications that the religious and ethnic basis of the party system may start to disintegrate. For example, in the 1998–2003 Assembly, there was a Catholic Member of the Legislative Assembly sitting for the Ulster Unionist Party. The SDLP have had a number of Protestant representatives in the past. A Protestant SDLP councillor recently defected to Sinn Féin. However, these tend to be one-off events, which have occurred periodically throughout Northern Ireland's history without setting a trend — cf Sir Denis Henry in the early part of the 20th century. In any event, social class is an important part of competition within the main ethnic political blocs, and class-based party structures in other established democracies have weakened since the end of the Cold War. Since the beginning of the peace process, the non-ethnic parties have declined, while the more radical Sinn Féin and DUP have prospered.
Optimists counter that, in the long-term, as the constitutional question may become less relevant due to the emergence of the European Union, and therefore a less sectarian political system may develop.
- See Culture of Northern Ireland, Culture of Ireland, Culture of the United Kingdom
With its improved international reputation, Northern Ireland has recently witnessed rising numbers of tourists who come to appreciate the area's unique heritage. Attractions include cultural festivals, musical and artistic traditions, countryside and geographical sites of interest, pubs, welcoming hospitality and sports (especially golf and fishing).
The dialect of English spoken in Northern Ireland shows heavy influence by that of Scotland, thereby giving it a distinct accent compared to other forms of Hiberno-English, along with the use of such Scots words as wee for 'little' and aye for 'yes'. Some jocularly call this version of Hiberno-English phonetically by the name Norn Iron. There are supposedly some minute differences in pronunciation between Protestants and Catholics, the best known of which is the name of the letter h, which Protestants tend to pronounce as "aitch", as in British English, and Catholics tend to pronounce as "haitch", as in Hiberno-English. However, geography is a much more important determinant of dialect than ethnic background. English is by far the most widely spoken language in Northern Ireland.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, Irish and Scots have official recognition on a par with that of English. Traditionally, the use of the Irish language in Northern Ireland has met with the considerable suspicion of Unionists, who associate it with nationalism.
Ulster Scots comprises varieties of the Scots language spoken in Northern Ireland. Many claim it has become a separate language, descended from Scots in Scotland, whereas others question whether Scots is a separate language from English at all, or simply a collection of local dialects of Scottish and Northern Ireland Hiberno-English.
Chinese and Urdu are also spoken by Northern Ireland's Asian communities. According to the most recent census returns, Chinese is now the second most widely spoken language, though the 8000-strong Chinese community — while often referred to as the "third largest" community in Northern Ireland — is tiny by international standards.
- Jonathan Bardon, A History of Ulster (Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 1996)
- Robert Kee, The Green Flag: A History of Irish Nationalism (Penguin, 1972–2000), ISBN 0140291652