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Northern Ireland
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Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland, a region of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, lies in the north-east of the island of Ireland. It covers 14,139 square kilometres (5,459 square miles), and has a population of 1,685,000 (April 2001). The capital is Belfast.

Northern Ireland was created in 1921 as a home-rule political entity. When the Irish Free State achieved independence, Northern Ireland declined to join and so remained part of the United Kingdom. The majority of the population is unionist and wishes to remain part of the United Kingdom, but a significant minority, known as the nationalists want a United Ireland. In the 1970s this conflict erupted into a violent struggle known as The Troubles — there is now an uneasy ceasefire among the main groups.

There is no longer any official Flag of Northern Ireland, the 'Red Hand Flag' was abolished along with the Parliament of Northern Ireland in 1972. Unionists tend to use the Union flag, and sometimes the Red Hand Flag, Nationalists use the Flag of Ireland.

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).

Northern Ireland (English)
Tuaisceart Éireann (Irish)
Norlin Airlann (Ulster Scots)
Northren Ireland (Scots)
Official languagesEnglish, Irish, (Ulster) Scots
First Ministersuspended
 - Total
 - % water
Ranked 4th
13,843 km²
 - Total (2001)
 - Density
Ranked 4th
EstablishmentPartition of Ireland, 1922
Currency Pound Sterling (£) (GBP)
Time zone UTC, Summer: +1 UTC (BST)
Calling Code44 28 Also 048 from the Republic of Ireland
International access code00

Table of contents
1 Geographic Nomenclature
2 History
3 Demographics and Politics
4 Languages
5 Towns and villages
6 Places of interest
7 See also
8 Recommended Reading List
9 External links

Geographic Nomenclature

Unionists often call Northern Ireland "Ulster" or "the Province"; nationalists often use the terms the "North of Ireland" and the "Six Counties". Ulster formed one of the historic provinces of the island of Ireland and consisted of 9 counties. Three of these now form part of the Republic of Ireland. The remaining six counties became Northern Ireland: These traditional counties are no longer used for local government purposes; instead there are 26 districts of Northern Ireland. The "six counties" remain in use for cultural purposes such as the GAA and The Orange Order.


The area now known as Northern Ireland has had a diverse history. From serving as the bedrock of Irish nationalism 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 settlers after the Flight of the Earls (when the native governing and military nationalist elite left en masse). Today, Northern Ireland comprises a diverse patchwork of community rivalries, represented in Belfast by whole communities flying the tricolour of Irish republicanism or the Union Flag, the symbol of their 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.

Early 20th century

Having received self-government in 1920 (even though they never sought it, and some like Sir Edward Carson opposed it bitterly) Northern Ireland under successive Prime Ministers from Sir James Craig (later Lord Craigavon) practised a policy of wholesale discrimination against the nationalist/Roman Catholic minority. Northern Ireland became, in the words of Nobel Peace Prize joint-winner, Ulster Unionist Leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland David Trimble, a "cold place for Catholics." Gerrymandered towns and city boundaries rigged local government elections to ensure Protestant control of local councils. Voting arrangements which gave commercial companies votes, and minimum income regulations also helped achieve similar ends.

Late 20th century

In the 1960s, moderate Unionist prime minister Terence O'Neill (later Lord O'Neill of the Maine) tried to reform the system, but encountered wholesale opposition from extreme fundamentalist Protestant leaders like the Reverend Ian Paisley. The increasing pressures from nationalists for reform and from extreme Unionists for 'No surrender' led to the appearance of the civil rights movement under figures like John Hume, Austin Currie and others. Clashes between marchers and the Royal Ulster Constabulary led to increased communal strife. The British army, originally sent to Northern Ireland by British Home Secretary, James Callaghan to protect nationalists from attack, received a warm welcome. However the murder of thirteen unarmed civilians in Derry by British paratroopers enflamed the situation and turned northern nationalists against the British Army. The appearance in 1969 of the Provisional IRA, a breakaway from the increasingly Marxist Official IRA, and a campaign of violence by Loyalist paramilitary groups like the Ulster Defence Association and others, brought Northern Ireland to the brink of civil war. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, extremists on both sides carried out a series of brutal acts of mass murders, often involving or even targeting innocent civilians. The most notorious outrages included the Le Mon bombing and the bombings in Enniskillen and Omagh, carried out by republicans in an attempt to force political change through guerilla warfare.

Some British politicians, notably former British Labour minister Tony Benn advocated British withdrawal from Ireland, but successive Irish governments opposed this policy, and called their prediction of the possible results of British withdrawal the Doomsday Scenario, depicting widespread communal strife, followed by the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children as refugees to their community's 'side' of the province; nationalists fleeing to western Northern Ireland, unionists fleeing to eastern Northern Ireland. The worst fear envisaged a civil war which would engulf not just Northern Ireland, but the neighbouring Republic of Ireland and Scotland both of which had major links with either or both communities. Later, the feared possible impact of British Withdrawal gained the designation the Balkanisation of Northern Ireland after the violent break-up of Yugoslavia and the chaos that unleashed.

In the early 1970s, the Parliament of Northern Ireland was prorogued after the province's Unionist Government under the premiership of Brian Faulkner refused to agree to the British Government demand that it hand over the powers of law and order. London introduced Direct Rule starting on March 24, 1972. New systems of governments were tried and failed, including power-sharing under Sunningdale Agreement, Rolling Devolution and the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

By the 1990s, the failure of the IRA campaign to win mass public support or achieve its aim of British Withdrawal, and in particular the public relations disaster of Enniskillen (when there were 11 fatalities among families attending a Remembrance Day ceremony), along with the replacement of the traditional Republican leadership of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh by Gerry Adams, saw a move away from armed conflict to political engagement.

This change from paramilitary to political means was part of a broader Northern Ireland peace process, which followed the appearance of new leaders in London (John Major) and Dublin (Albert Reynolds). Increased government focus on the problems of Northern Ireland led, in 1993, to the two prime ministers signing the Downing Street Declaration. The election of a new leader for the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble, allowed that party to respond more flexibly. Contacts between Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Féin, and John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, were followed by all-party negotiations that in 1998 produced the Belfast Agreement. A majority of both communities in Northern Ireland approved this Agreement, as did the people of the Republic of Ireland, who amended their constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, to replace a claim it made to the territory of Northern Ireland with a recognition of Northern Ireland's right to exist and an acknowledgement of the nationalist desire for a united Ireland.

After the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement

Under the Good Friday Agreement, properly known as the Belfast Agreement, voters elected a new Northern Ireland Assembly to form a Northern Irish parliament. Every party that reaches a specific level of support gains the right to name a member of its party to government and claim a ministry. Ulster Unionist party leader David Trimble became First Minister of Northern Ireland. The Deputy Leader of the SDLP, Seamus Mallon, became Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, though his party's new leader, Mark Durkan, subsequently replaced him. The Ulster Unionists, Social Democratic and Labour Party, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party each had ministers by right in the power-sharing assembly. The Assembly and its Executive are both currently suspended over unionist threats over the alleged delay in the Provisional IRA implementing its agreement to decommission its weaponry, and also the alleged discovery of an IRA spy-ring operating in the heart of the civil service. Government is now once more run by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Paul Murphy and a British ministerial team answerable to him.

The changing climate in Northern Ireland was represented by the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to the Parliament Buildings in Stormont, where she met nationalist ministers from the SDLP as well as unionist ministers, and spoke of the rights of those Northern Irish people who perceive themselves as Irish to be treated as equal citizens with those who regard themselves as British. Similarly, on visits to Northern Ireland, the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, met with unionist ministers and with the local Lord Lieutenant of each county, the representative of the Queen.

Demographics and Politics

The vast majority of the population of Northern Ireland identifies with one of two different ethnic groups, unionists and nationalists. Both communities are often described by their predominant religious attachments, particularly by media outside Northern Ireland. 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 Roman Catholic. However contrary to widespread belief, not all Roman Catholics necessarily support nationalism, and not all Protestants necessarily support unionism.

Once established under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, Northern Ireland was structured geographically so as to have a unionist majority, unionist fears as to what would happen to them forming the basis for their opposition to a united Ireland, which led to creation of the two Irish states. However the Roman Catholic population has increased in percentage terms within Northern Ireland, while the Presbyterian and Church of Ireland population percentages have decreased.

The religious affiliations, based on census returns, have changed as follows between 1961 and 2002:

Religious Affiliations in Northern Ireland 1961-2001
Religions 1961 1991 2001
Roman Catholic 34.9 38.4 40.3
Presbyterian 29.0 21.4 20.7
Church of Ireland 24.2 17.7 15.3
Other Religions 9.3 11.5 9.9
Not Stated 2.0 7.3 9.0
None 0.0 3.8 5.0
Most Northern Irish Catholics support reunification, although opinion polls have shown a sizeable 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 past fifteen years to around 20% in most polls. The proportion of Protestants who wish to join the Republic is smaller, at 3-5%, but stable. There are also considerable numbers of people, especially Catholics, 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.

Generally speaking, one can characterise the party system in Northern Ireland as a composite of two overlapping party systems. Nationalists choose between the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Sinn Féin, along with a cluster of smaller non-aligned parties such as the Alliance Party and the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition;. Unionists choose between the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the above mentioned non-aligned parties and some smaller, often paramilitary linked unionist parties.

Sinn Féin are a radical socialist revolutionary party, theoretically committed to espousing an all-Ireland Socialist Republic, and linked with the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Traditionally the party of the urban Catholic working-class and a number of rural areas, since the IRA ceasefires of the mid-[1990s]], it has expanded its base considerably, and has over taken the long dominant SDLP in terms of share of the vote. The experience of government has also blunted the edge of the party's revolutionary enthusiams. Sinn Fein's MEPs sit in the European United Left - Nordic Green Left group although are not full members of it.

The SDLP are a nominally social democratic party which is 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 supports Irish reunification, but reject utterly the use of violence as a means to that end. The SDLP has lost considerable support in the past decade, and there seems to be a struggle within the party between those who wish to see it adopt a post-Nationalist agenda and those who wish to move on to more Nationalist ground to take on Sinn Féin.

Similarly, on the Unionist side of the political spectrum, the more radical DUP has overtaken the traditionally dominant Ulster Unionists in recent elections. 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 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 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.

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 operated by Robert McCartney MP.

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 the 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 Irish Green Party, Workers Party and the Northern Ireland branch of the Conservative Party.

There are also two tiny parties seeking independence for Northern Ireland, although this is often perceived to be an ethnically Protestant or Unionist ideal.

Some commentators believe there are indications that the religion/party system may start to disintegrate. For example, in the 1998-2003 Assembly, there was a Catholic member of the Ulster Unionist Party]]. The SDLP have had a number of Catholic representatives in the past. 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.


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 ay for 'yes'. Some jocularly call this version of Hiberno-English phonetically by the name Norn Iron. There are minute differences in pronunciation between Protestants and Catholics, the best known of which is 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 Ulster 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 associated it with the overwhelmingly Catholic Republic of Ireland, and later with republicans.

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 local dialects of Scottish and Northern Ireland English.

Chinese and Urdu are also spoken by Northern Ireland's Chinese and Asian communities. Given the size of the Chinese community in Northern Ireland, Chinese is now the second most widely spoken language, according to the most recent census returns.

Towns and villages

List of towns in Northern Ireland

Places of interest

See also

Recommended Reading List

External links

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