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 km² (5,459 square miles), and has a population of 1,685,267 (April 2001). The capital is Belfast.

Northern Ireland

Table of contents
1 Overview
2 Geographic Nomenclature
3 History
4 Demographics
5 Languages
6 Towns and villages
7 Places of interest
8 Recommended Reading List


The Government of Ireland Act 1920, enacted by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland parliament, set up Northern Ireland as a separate political entity in 1921. Faced with divergent demands from Irish nationalists and Unionists over the future of the island of Ireland (the former wanted an all-Irish home rule parliament to govern the entire island, the latter no home rule at all), and the fear of civil war between both groups, the British Government under David Lloyd George passed the Government of Ireland Act, creating two home-rule Irelands: Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. Southern Ireland never came into being as a real state: the Irish Free State superseded it in 1922. (That state now bears the name of "the Republic of Ireland".)

Geographic Nomenclature

Unionists often call Northern Ireland "Ulster" or "the Province"; nationalists often use the terms "the North of Ireland" or "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:

  • County Antrim
  • County Armagh
  • County Down
  • County Fermanagh
  • County Tyrone
  • County Londonderry
    • Historically, two separate names have labelled both the city and county, with nationalists using "Derry" (from the Irish language 'Doire') for both, and Unionists, on account of historic local links with London, calling them both "Londonderry". For accuracy and clarity, this article uses the correct official names, as agreed by the representatives of both communities at council level. The city currently bears the official name of Londonderry, though governed by the 'Derry City Council. In January 2003 the Council, after a vote proposed and supported by the main nationalist parties, the SDLP and Sinn Féin and opposed by the main Unionist parties, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, formally petitioned Queen Elizabeth II to ask her to change the City Charter to name the city officially as 'Derry'. The county's formal official name, however, is and will remain "County Londonderry". Irrespective of the official names, one can expect both communities to continue to use both names, Derry and Londonderry.

In fact, after the establishment of Northern Ireland, the "six counties" underwent sub-division into 26 local authorities for purposes of administration (if not of culture, e.g. the GAA and The Orange Order), meaning that strictly, the 'Six counties' no longer exist. (Nor has the 'twenty six' county Republic of Ireland twenty-six counties ; it actually has thirty three; 'county' Tipperary actually subdivides into two counties, Tipperary North Riding and Tipperary South Riding , while the former county of Dublin has broken in four to form 'Fingal', 'Dublin City', 'South County Dublin' and 'Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown'). Counties such as Limerick, Cork and Galway have also split between city and county. (These divisions, with the exception of those in Dublin, predate partition). For traditional cultural purposes, however, the Republic of Ireland still has 26 traditional counties.


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 of the Provisional IRA, a breakaway from the increasingly marxist Official IRA, and a campaign of violence by loyalist terror 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 mass-murders, often involving innocent civilians. The most notorious outrages included the Le Mon bombing and the bombings in Enniskillen and Omagh, caried 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 families attending a Remembrance Day ceremony, along with the replacement of the traditional Republican leadership of Ruairi Ó Bradaigh by Gerry Adams, saw a move away from armed conflict to political engagement. These changes were followed the appearance of new leaders in Dublin Albert Reynolds, in London John Major and in Ulster unionism David Trimble. Contacts, initially between Adams and John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, broadened out into all-party negotiations, that in 1998 produced the 'Good Friday 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, while also acknowledging 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, SDLP, 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 or 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 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.


Northern Ireland forms a complex entity, divided between two different cultural communities, unionists and nationalists. Both communities 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 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, 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 Protestant population percentage has 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

At first glance, such numbers suggest that a majority for Irish unity may become possible in the medium term, around the year 2030. Detailed study of the figures, for example, when matched with the geographic areas from which such respondents came from, suggests that the proportion who refused to indicate a religious affiliation are overwhelming Protestant, with a small number Roman Catholic. When adjusted, the Roman Catholic proportion as a result in reality amounts to 44.5%, much less than the 47-48% expected by some commentators before the census results appeared in December 2002. However much of the Roman Catholic increase is below voting age, so will not impact on election results for some time yet. But opinion polls show that a significant proportion of the Roman Catholic electorate, approximately 35% of all Roman Catholics before the Belfast Agreement (it is estimated that that proportion may have declined to 20% since then) would prefer to remain the United Kingdom, in part because of the belief that a united Ireland, even after the Celtic Tiger, could not pay the £4 billion subsidies that currently keep Northern Ireland's economy afloat (subsidies currently paid by the British Exchequer) leading to a substantial decline in income and job prospects in the event of a united Ireland.

So Irish unity would require (i) a continuation of a higher birth rate among Roman Catholics than Protestants, which as Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland are increasingly resorting to birth control, seems unlikely, and (ii) a substantial shift among Roman Catholic opinion in favour of Irish unity, which again shows no evidence of occurring, particularly if the Belfast Agreement succeeds in reducing sectarianism and so making it possible for more Roman Catholics to vote for the unionist parties. (Some vote for the middle of the road Alliance Party, the Ulster Unionist Party now have one Roman Catholic MLA (members of the Legislative Assembly in Stormont), while even the fundamentalist Protestant Reverend Ian Paisley attracts an small number of Roman Catholic votes in his predominantly Protestant constituency at general elections.

As an ultimate irony, while Sinn Féin in particular sold the Belfast Agreement on the basis that it would 'deliver' Irish unity in the medium term, by reducing sectarianism it may make the a discrimination-free Northern Ireland's status quo more attractive to Roman Catholics, making the necessary shift that must occur among those Roman Catholics not currently in favour of Irish unity, less likely. No statistical evidence shows any major shift towards nationalism among many Protestants, who themselves may become satisfied with the status quo, should the Belfast Agreement work. In the event of the Belfast Agreement's failure, and a return to the sort of sectarianism that maintains strong through not exclusive allegiances to each other's community parties, at best Catholics and Protestants may reach a balance in terms of percentages, but given the proportion of Roman Catholics not favouring Irish unity, that in itself would maintain the status quo, namely Northern Ireland's membership of the United Kingdom.

For an analysis of the census results and their implications, see Garret FitzGerald in The Irish Times, December 21, 2002.

See also: History of Ireland, Environment and Heritage Service, National Nature Reserves in Northern Ireland, Roads in Northern Ireland


The English spoken in Northern Ireland shows heavy influence by that of Scotland, thereby giving it a distinct accent compared to Hiberno-English, along with the use of Scots words as wee for 'little' and ay for 'yes'. Differences even exist in pronunciation between Protestants and Catholics, such as the letter h, which Protestants pronounce as "aitch", as in British English, and Catholics pronounce as haitch as in Hiberno-English .

Under the Good Friday Agreement, Irish and Ulster Scots have official recognition. 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 Asian community. 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

Recommended Reading List

  • Jonathan Bardon A History of Ulster Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 1996 [a very comprehensive history of the province]