Northern Ireland

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Northern Ireland
Tuaisceart Éireann
Norlin Airlann*
(Unofficial Flag) (Semiofficial Coat of Arms)
Royal motto: Quis separabit
(Latin: Who will separate?)
Location of Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland's location within the UK
Northern Ireland's location within the UK
Official languages English, Irish,
Ulster Scots
Capital and
largest city
First Minister Office suspended
 - Total
Ranked 4th
13,843 km²
 - Total (2001)
 - Density
Ranked 4th
Establishment Partition of Ireland (1920)
Currency Pound Sterling (£) (GBP)
Time zone
 - in summer
Calling code +44 281
National flower Shamrock
Patron saint St. Patrick
1. Also 048 from Republic of Ireland
* This has never been used by Scots speakers anywhere at any time but was invented by Ulster Scots enthusiasts in the 1990s.
For an explanation of often confusing terms like Ulster, (Republic of) Ireland, (Great) Britain and United Kingdom see British Isles (terminology).

Northern Ireland is one of four constituent parts of the United Kingdom. It is an exclave of the United Kingdom located on the island of Ireland, where it shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland, and is the only part of the United Kingdom with an international land border. It was created by the Government of Ireland Act, 1920.

It covers 14,139 km² (5,459 mi²) in the northeast 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.


Demographics and politics

Main article: Demographics and politics of Northern Ireland

A majority of the present-day population (59%, according to a 2004 survey) wish to remain part of the United Kingdom, but a significant minority (22%) want to see a united Ireland. It is common to refer to the majority "community" as Unionists and the the minority "community" as Nationalists, though there are many who hold a position on the border that is at odds with the label of their "community" or refute the labels completely. The make-up of the Northern Ireland Assembly reflects these divisions within the population. Of the 108 members, 59 are Unionists and 42 are Nationalist (the remaining seven are classified as "other"). Although Protestants are still in the majority, the plurality by religious denomination are Roman Catholics, followed by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Church of Ireland, with the Methodist Church of Ireland coming fourth.

The two opposing views of British unionism and Irish nationalism 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 population predating such settlement. Discrimination against nationalists under the Stormont government (19201972) gave rise to the nationalist civil rights movement in the 1960s. Many unionists argue that any discrimination was not just because of religious or political bigotry, but also the result of more complex socio-economic, socio-political and geographical factors. This eventually led to a long-running conflict known as The Troubles and the political unrest has gone through its most violent phase in recent times between 19681994.

The main actors have been the Provisional IRA and other republican groups determined to end the British presence, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, British army and various loyalist paramilitary groups who were defending it. 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 PSNI allegations of spying by people working for Sinn Fein at the Assembly, although nobody was convicted after a high-profile police operation.

On 28 July, 2005, the Provisional IRA declared an end to its campaign and have since decommissioned what is thought to be all of their arsenal. This act was performed in accordance with the Belfast Agreement 1998, and under the watch of the International Decommissioning Body and two external church witnesses. The Unionist majority remains skeptical, however.


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.

As a constituent part of the United Kingdom, the only "official" Flag of Northern Ireland is the Union Flag. The 'Ulster Banner' (or 'Red Hand Flag') is no longer official due to the abolition of the Parliament of Northern Ireland in 1972. Unionists tend to use the Union flag, the 'Ulster Banner' or paramilitary flags, while nationalists typically use the Irish tricolour. Some unionists also occasionally use the flags of secular and religious organizations they belong to. The 'Ulster Banner' is based on the flag of Ulster. 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 used to represent Ireland during British rule and is used by some British army regiments. No universally acceptable symbol has yet been found. Foreign flags are also found, such as the Palestinian flags in some Nationalist areas and Israeli flags in some Unionist areas.

Similarly, there is no longer an official national anthem. At most events requiring a Northern Irish national anthem, God Save The Queen is played. At the Commonwealth Games the old anthem of Northern Ireland is played, along side the Ulster Banner (above), A Londonderry Air, perhaps better known outside Northern Ireland as the tune of Danny Boy, is used.

Geography and climate

Map of Northern Ireland
Map of Northern Ireland
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 are 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 of North America. Average daytime maximums in Belfast are 6.5°C (43.7°F) in January and 17.5°C (63.5°F) in July. The damp climate and extensive deforestation in the 16th and 17th centuries resulted in much of the region being covered in rich green grassland.

The Counties in Northern Ireland

Mussenden Temple/Co. Londonderry
Mussenden Temple/Co. Londonderry

Northern Ireland consists of six 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. Though Coleraine borough council for example derives its name from the town of Coleraine in County Londonderry.

Towns and villages

Main articles: Towns in Northern Ireland and Villages in Northern Ireland See also the list of places in Northern Ireland for all villages, towns and cities

Places of interest

Giants Causeway
Giants Causeway

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 early 17th century and to the millennium-old province of Ulster, one of four provinces on the island of Ireland. The 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 Ulster, with its mythology.


  • North of Ireland - to link Northern Ireland to the rest of island, by describing the state as being in the 'north of Ireland' and so by implication playing down Northern Ireland's links with Britain. (The northernmost point in Ireland, in County Donegal, is in fact in the Republic.)
  • 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 these terms contend that using the official name of the region would imply acceptance of the legitimacy of the Government of Ireland Act.

  • The Occupied Six Counties. The Republic, whose legitimacy is not recognised by republicans who oppose the Belfast Agreement, 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. The most famous example is whether Northern Ireland's second city should be called Derry or 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 unionist politicians for calling the region the "North of Ireland" while Sinn Féin has been criticised in some newspapers in the Republic for referring to the "Six Counties".

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 Ireland (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 BBC Radio Ulster.

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". For Northern Ireland's second largest city, broadcasting outlets which are unaligned to either community and broadcast to both use both names interchangeably, often starting a report with "Londonderry" and then using "Derry" in the rest of the report. However within Northern Ireland, print media which are aligned to either community (the Belfast Newsletter is aligned to the unionist community while the Irish News is aligned to the nationalist community) generally use their community's preferred term. British newspapers with unionist leanings, such as the Daily Telegraph[1], usually use the language of the unionist community, while others, such as The Guardian use the terms interchangeably [2] [3] The media in the Republic of Ireland use the nomenclature preferred by nationalists, eg RTÉ News.

The division in nomenclature is seen particularly in sports and religions associated with one of the communities. Gaelic games and football (soccer) use Derry in club names for example. Nor is there clear agreement on how to decide on a name. When the nationalist-controlled local council voted to re-name the city "Derry" unionists objected, stating that as it owed its city status to a Royal Charter, only a charter issued by Queen Elizabeth II could change the name. Queen Elizabeth refused to intervene on the matter and thus the council is now called "Derry City Council" while the city is still officially "Londonderry". Nevertheless, the council has printed two sets of stationery - one for each term - and their policy is to reply to correspondence using whichever term the original sender used.

At times of high communal tension, each side regularly complains of the use of the nomenclature associated with the other community by a third party such as a media organisation, claiming such usage indicates evident "bias" against their community.


Main article: Economy of Northern Ireland

The Northern Irish economy is the smallest of the four economies making up the United Kingdom.


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 Gaelic aristocracy left en masse for Catholic Europe).

The all-island Kingdom of Ireland (1541-1801) was incorporated into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland 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 were in the majority in the four counties of Armagh, Antrim, Down, and Londonderry, thereby forming a narrow majority in the northern province of Ulster.

The clash between the House of Commons and House of Lords of the controversial budget of Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George, produced the Parliament Act 1911 which enabled the veto of the Lords to be overturned. Given that the Lords had been the unionists' main guarantee that a Home Rule Act would be enacted, because of the majority of pro-unionist peers in the House, the Parliament Act made Home Rule a likely prospect in Ireland. Opponents to Home Rule, from Conservative Party leaders like Andrew Bonar Law and Lord Randolph Churchill to militant unionists in Ireland threatened the use of voilence, producing the Larne Gun Running in 1912, when they smuggled thousands of rifles and rounds of ammunition from Imperial Germany for the Ulster Volunteer Force. Churchill famously told a unionist audience in Ulster that "Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right."

Prime Ministers
of Northern Ireland
Sir James Craig. (1922—1940)
Sir James Craig. (1922—1940)
John Millar Andrews (1940—1943).
John Millar Andrews (1940—1943).
Sir Basil Brooke (1943—1963)
Sir Basil Brooke (1943—1963)
CaptainTerence O'Neill (1963—1969)
CaptainTerence O'Neill (1963—1969)
James Chichester-Clark (1969—1971)
James Chichester-Clark (1969—1971)
Brian Faulkner (1971—1972)
Brian Faulkner (1971—1972)

The prospect of civil war on Ireland was seen by some as likely. In 1914 the Third Home Rule Act, which contained provision for a temporary partition, received the Royal Assent. However its implementation was suspended for the duration of the intervening First World War, which was only expected to a few weeks but lasted four years. But the time it concluded, the Act was seen as dead in the water, with public opinion in the majority nationalist community having moved from a demand for home rule to something more substantial, independence. Lloyd George proposed in 1919 a new bill which would divide Ireland into two Home Rule areas, twenty-six counties being ruled from Dublin, six being ruled from Belfast, with a shared Lord Lieutenant of Ireland appointing both executives and a Council of Ireland, which Lloyd George believed would evolve into an all-island parliament.

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 Ireland) and the remaining twenty-six counties of the south and west (forming 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.

Under the Anglo-Irish Treaty Northern Ireland was scheduled to be moved from the United Kingdom to the Irish Free State, with Oireachtas Éireann replacing the Houses of Parliament as the national parliament under which the Northern government government and parliament would sit as a home rule entity. As expected and provided for, the Parlament of Northern Ireland petitioned the King to be excluded from the Free State and to remain in the United Kingdom. Once that happened, as provided for, a Boundary Commission came into being to decide on the territorial boundaries between the Irish state and the Northern Ireland home rule region. Though leaders in both Dublin and London expected a substantial reduction in the territory of Northern Ireland, with nationalist areas like Derry, Armagh, Tyrone and urban territories like Derry and Newry moving to the Free State, when it appeared that this would not happen the Boundary Commission was put in mothballs and its report enbargoed. The British and Irish governments agreed to leave the boundaries as they were provided for in the Government of Ireland Act.

In the mid 1940s, to encourage the Irish state to join with the Allies, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill offered Taoiseach Éamon de Valera Irish unity but, believing that Churchill could not deliver, de Valera declined the offer. The British did not inform the Northern Ireland government that they had made the offer to the Stormont government.

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, and 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 governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Bunreacht na hÉireann, the constitution of the Republic, was amended in 1999 to remove a claim to sovereignty over the whole of Ireland (in Article 2), a claim qualified by an acknowledgement of British rule in the northeast. The new Articles 2 and 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 a majority of voters in 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. However, many unionist leaders equivocate when asked if they would peacefully accept a reunited Ireland if a majority in Northern Ireland sought it.

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 with approximately 57% of the total electorate voting in support, but most nationalists boycotted the poll. Though legal provision remains for holding another plebiscite, and former 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.


See Culture of Northern Ireland, Culture of Ulster, 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). In 1987, pubs were allowed to open on Sundays, despite vocal opposition.


The Mid Ulster dialect of English spoken in Northern Ireland shows influence from both the West Midlands and Scotland, thereby giving it a distinct accent compared to Hiberno-English, along with the use of such Scots words as wee for 'little' and aye for 'yes'. Some jocularly call this dialect 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. Often the use of the Irish language in Northern Ireland has met with the considerable suspicion of Unionists, who have associated it with the largely Catholic Republic of Ireland, and more recently, with the republican movement in Northern Ireland itself.

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.

See also

Further reading

  • 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

External links

United Kingdom | Ireland | Northern Ireland | Districts of Northern Ireland

Antrim | Ards | Armagh | Ballymena | Ballymoney | Banbridge | Belfast | Carrickfergus | Castlereagh | Coleraine | Cookstown | Craigavon | Derry | Down | Dungannon and South Tyrone | Fermanagh | Larne | Limavady | Lisburn | Magherafelt | Moyle | Newry and Mourne | Newtownabbey | North Down | Omagh | Strabane


Cities in Ireland
Republic of Ireland: Dublin | Cork | Limerick | Galway | Waterford | Kilkenny
Northern Ireland: Belfast | Derry | Armagh | Newry | Lisburn

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