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Northern Ireland

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Northern Ireland  (English)
Tuaisceart Éireann  ( Irish)
Norlin Airlann  ( Ulster Scots)
Location of  Northern Ireland  (red)in the United Kingdom  (light yellow)
Location of  Northern Ireland  (red)

in the United Kingdom  (light yellow)

and largest city
54°35.456′N 5°50.4′W
Official languages English (de facto), Irish and Ulster Scots1
Government Constitutional monarchy
 -  Monarch Queen Elizabeth II
 -  Prime Minister (of the United Kingdom) Gordon Brown MP
 -  First Minister Peter Robinson MLA
 -  Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness MLA
 -  Secretary of State Shaun Woodward MP
 -  Government of Ireland Act 3 May, 1921 
 -  Total 13,843 km2 
5,345 sq mi 
 -  2006 estimate 1,741,600
 -  2001 census 1,685,267
 -  Density 122/km2
315/sq mi
GDP ( PPP) 2002 estimate
 -  Total £33.2 billion
 -  Per capita £19,603
Currency Pound sterling ( GBP)
Time zone GMT ( UTC+0)
 -  Summer ( DST) BST ( UTC+1)
Calling code 44
Patron saint St Patrick4
Internet TLD .uk2, .ie2
1. Officially recognised languages: Northern Ireland has no official language; the use of English has been established through precedent. Irish and Ulster Scots are officially recognised minority languages
2. Also .eu, as part of the European Union, and .ie shared with Ireland. ISO 3166-1 is GB, but .gb is unused.
3. +44 is always followed by 28 when calling landlines. The code is 028 within the UK and 048 from the Republic of Ireland
4. In common with Ireland.

Northern Ireland ( Irish: Tuaisceart Éireann, Ulster Scots: Norlin Airlann) is a constituent country within the United Kingdom, lying in the northeast of the island of Ireland, covering 5,459 square miles (14,139 km²), about a sixth of the island's total area. It shares a border with the Republic of Ireland to the south and west. At the time of the UK Census in April 2001, its population was 1,685,000, constituting between a quarter and a third of the island's total population and about 3% of the population of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland consists of six of the nine counties of the historic Irish province of Ulster. In the UK, it is generally known as one of the four Home Nations that form the Kingdom.

Northern Ireland was established as a distinct administrative region of the United Kingdom on 3 May 1921 under the Government of Ireland Act 1920. For over 50 years it was the only part of the UK to have its own form of devolved government until it was suspended in 1972. Northern Ireland's current devolved government bodies, the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive were established in 1998 but were suspended several times. They were restored on 8 May, 2007. Northern Ireland's legal system descends from the pre-1921 Irish legal system (as does the legal system of the Republic of Ireland). It is based on common law. Northern Ireland is a distinct jurisdiction, separate from England and Wales and Scotland.

Northern Ireland was for many years the site of a violent and bitter ethno-political conflict between those claiming to represent Nationalists, who are predominantly Roman Catholic, and those claiming to represent Unionists, who are predominantly Protestant. In general, Nationalists want Northern Ireland to be unified with the rest of Ireland and Unionists want it to remain part of the United Kingdom. Protestants are in the majority in Northern Ireland, though Roman Catholics represent a significant minority. In general, Protestants consider themselves British and Catholics see themselves as Irish but there are some who see themselves as both British and Irish. People from Northern Ireland are entitled to both British and Irish citizenship (see Citizenship and identity). The campaigns of violence have become known popularly as The Troubles. The majority of both sides of the community have had no direct involvement in the violent campaigns waged. Since the signing of the Belfast Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Agreement or the G.F.A.) in 1998, many of the major paramilitary campaigns have either been on ceasefire or have declared their war to be over.


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 the subject of major planting of Scottish and English settlers after the Flight of the Earls in 1607 (when the Gaelic aristocracy fled to Catholic Europe).

The all-island Kingdom of Ireland (1541—1800) merged 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 government and monarchy based in London. In the early 20th century, Unionists, led by Sir Edward Carson (generally regarded as the founder of Northern Ireland), opposed the introduction of Home Rule in Ireland. Unionists were in a minority on the island of Ireland as a whole, but were a majority in the northern province of Ulster, a very large majority in the counties of Antrim and Down, small majorities in the counties of Armagh and Londonderry, with substantial numbers also concentrated in the nationalist-majority counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone. These six counties, containing an overall unionist majority, would later form Northern Ireland.

The clash between the House of Commons and House of Lords over 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 not 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 to militant unionists in Ireland, threatened the use of violence, producing the Larne Gun Running incident in 1914, when they smuggled thousands of rifles and rounds of ammunition from Imperial Germany for the Ulster Volunteers. The prospect of civil war in Ireland loomed.

Prime Ministers
of Northern Ireland
Lord Craigavon (1922–1940)
John Miller Andrews (1940–1943)
Lord Brookeborough (1943–1963)
Captain Terence O'Neill (1963–1969)
James Chichester-Clark (1969–1971)
Brian Faulkner (1971–1972)

In 1914, the Third Home Rule Act, which contained provision for a temporary partition, received the Royal Assent. Its implementation was suspended for the duration of the intervening First World War, which was expected to last only a few weeks, but, in fact, lasted four years.

By the end of the war, 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. David 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-Ireland parliament.

1920-1925: Partition of Ireland, partition of Ulster

The island of Ireland was partitioned in 1921 under the terms of the Government of Ireland Act 1920. Six of the nine Ulster counties in the north-east formed Northern Ireland and the remaining three counties (including County Donegal, despite it having a large Protestant minority as well as it being the most northern county in all of Ireland) joined those of Leinster, Munster and Connacht to form Southern Ireland. Whilst Southern Ireland had only a brief existence between 1921 and 1922, a period dominated by the Anglo-Irish War and its aftermath, Northern Ireland was to continue on.

Northern Ireland provisionally became an autonomous part of the Irish Free State on 6 December 1922. However, as expected, the Parliament of Northern Ireland chose, under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, to opt out of the Irish Free State the following day. Shortly after Northern Ireland had exercised its opt out of the Irish Free State, a Boundary Commission was established to decide on the territorial boundaries between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. Though leaders in Dublin expected a substantial reduction in the territory of Northern Ireland (with nationalist areas like south Armagh, Tyrone, southern County Londonderry and urban territories like Derry and Newry moving to the Free State), the Boundary Commission decided against this. This decision was approved by the Dáil in Dublin on 10 December 1925 by a vote of 71 to 20.

1926 to the present

In June 1940, to encourage the Irish state to join with the Allies, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill indicated to the Taoiseach Éamon de Valera that the United Kingdom would push for 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 Dublin government, and De Valera's rejection was not publicized until 1970.

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 Irish state, was amended in 1999 to remove a claim of the "Irish nation" to sovereignty over the whole of Ireland (in Article 2), a claim qualified by an acknowledgement that the Republic of Ireland could only exercise legal control over the territory formerly known as the Irish Free State. The new Articles 2 and 3, added to the Constitution to replace the earlier articles, implicitly acknowledge that the status of Northern Ireland, and its relationships within the rest of the United Kingdom and with the Republic of Ireland, would only be changed with the agreement of a majority of voters in both jurisdictions Ireland (voting separately). This acknowledgement was also central to the Belfast Agreement which was signed in 1998 and ratified by referenda held simultaneously in both Northern Ireland and the Republic.

A plebiscite within Northern Ireland on whether it should remain in the United Kingdom, or form part of a united Ireland, was held in 1973. The vote went heavily in favour (98.9%) of maintaining the status quo with approximately 57.5% 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 2007.

By 2005 Northern Ireland had established 100% broadband coverage. This was achieved by a partnership between the Northern Ireland Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and BT Northern Ireland.

On 8 May 2007 local authonomous government returned to Northern Ireland. DUP leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin politician Martin McGuinness took office as First Minister and Deputy First Minister, respectively.

"The Troubles"

The Troubles consisted of about thirty years of recurring acts of intense violence between elements of Northern Ireland's nationalist community (principally Roman Catholic) and unionist community (principally Protestant) during which 3,254 people were killed . The conflict was caused by the disputed status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom and the domination of the minority nationalist community, and discrimination against them, by the unionist majority. The violence was characterised by the armed campaigns of paramilitary groups, including the Provisional IRA campaign of 1969-1997 which was aimed at the end of British rule in Northern Ireland and the creation of a new "all-Ireland", Irish Republic, and the Ulster Volunteer Force, formed in 1966 in response to the perceived erosion of both the British character and unionist domination of Northern Ireland. The state security forces--the British Army and the police (the Royal Ulster Constabulary)--were also involved in the violence. The British government's point of view is that its forces were neutral in the conflict, trying to uphold law and order in Northern Ireland and the right of the people of Northern Ireland to democratic self-determination. Irish republicans, however, regarded the state forces as " combatants" in the conflict, noting collusion between the state forces and the loyalist paramilitaries as proof of this. The "Ballast" investigation by the Police Ombudsman has confirmed that British forces, and in particular the RUC, did collude with loyalist paramilitaries, were involved in murder, and did obstruct the course of justice when such claims had previously been investigated, although the extent to which such collusion occurred is still hotly disputed, with Unionists claiming that reports of collusion are either false or highly exaggerated and that there were also instances of collusion between the authorities in the Republic of Ireland and Republican paramilitaries. See also the section below on Collusion by Security Forces and loyalist paramilitaries.

Alongside the violence, there was a political deadlock between the major political parties in Northern Ireland, including those who condemned violence, over the future status of Northern Ireland and the form of government there should be within Northern Ireland.

The Troubles were brought to an uneasy end by a peace process which included the declaration of ceasefires by most paramilitary organisations and the complete decommissioning of their weapons, the reform of the police, and the corresponding withdrawal of army troops from the streets and from sensitive border areas such as South Armagh and Fermanagh, as agreed by the signatories to the Belfast Agreement (commonly known as the " Good Friday Agreement"). This reiterated the long-held British position, which had never before been fully acknowledged by successive Irish governments, that Northern Ireland will remain within the United Kingdom until a majority votes otherwise. On the other hand, the British Government recognised for the first time, as part of the prospective, the so-called "Irish dimension": the principle that the people of the island of Ireland as a whole have the right, without any outside interference, to solve the issues between North and South by mutual consent. The latter statement was key to winning support for the agreement from nationalists and republicans. It also established a devolved power-sharing government within Northern Ireland (which had been suspended from 14 October 2002 until 8 May 2007), where the government must consist of both unionist and nationalist parties.

Recent History

On 8 May 2007 local devolved government returned to Northern Ireland. DUP leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin deputy leader Martin McGuinness took office as First Minister and Deputy First Minister, respectively.

Demography and politics

Communities in Northern Ireland - 1991 census.

The population of Northern Ireland was estimated as being 1,710,300 on 30 June 2004. In the 2001 census, 45.6% of the population identified as belonging to Protestant denominations (of which 20.7% Presbyterian, 15.3% Church of Ireland), 40.3% identified as Catholic, 0.3% identified with non-Christian religions and 13.9% identified with no religion. In terms of community background, 53.1% of the Northern Irish population came from a Protestant background, 43.8% came from a Catholic background, 0.4% from non-Christian backgrounds and 2.7% non-religious backgrounds. The population is forecast to pass the 1.8 million mark by 2011.

A plurality of the present-day population define themselves as Unionist, 22% as Nationalist and 35% define themselves as neither. According to a 2005 opinion poll, 58% express long term preference of the maintenance of Northern Ireland's membership of the United Kingdom, while 23% express a preference for membership of a united Ireland. This discrepancy can be explained by the overwhelming preference among Protestants to remain a part of the UK (85%), while Catholic preferences are spread across a number of solutions to the constitutional question including remaining a part of the UK (25%), a united Ireland (50%), Northern Ireland becoming an independent state (9%), and those who "don't know" (14%). Official voting figures, which reflect views on the "national question" along with issues of candidate, geography, personal loyalty and historic voting patterns, show 54% of Northern Ireland voters vote for Pro-Unionist parties, 42% vote for Pro-Nationalist parties and 4% vote "other". Opinion polls consistently show that the election results are not necessarily an indication of the electorate's stance regarding the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

Most of the population of Northern Ireland are at least nominally Christian. The ethno-political loyalties are allied, though not absolutely, to the Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations and these are the labels used to categorise the opposing views. This is, however, becoming increasingly irrelevant as the Irish Question is very complicated. Many voters (regardless of religious affiliation) are attracted to Unionism's conservative policies, while other voters are instead attracted to the traditionally leftist, nationalist Sinn Féin and Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and their respective party platforms for Democratic Socialism and Social Democracy. For the most part, Protestants feel a strong connection with Great Britain and wish for Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. Catholics generally desire a greater connection with the Republic of Ireland, or are less certain about how to solve the constitutional question. In a survey by Northern Ireland Life and Times, a fifth of Northern Irish Catholics were said to support Northern Ireland remaining a part of the United Kingdom (see Catholic Unionist). Despite this 2% Catholics in the survey stated they would vote for Unionist Parties and 3% would vote for the Alliance Party.

Protestants have a slight majority in Northern Ireland, according to the latest Northern Ireland Census. The make-up of the Northern Ireland Assembly reflects the appeals of the various parties within the population. Of the 108 MLA's, 55 are Unionists and 44 are Nationalists (the remaining nine are classified as "other"). The largest single religious denomination is the Roman Catholic Church, which comprises a plurality, followed by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Church of Ireland (Anglican) and the Methodist Church.

The two opposing views of British unionism and Irish nationalism are linked to deeper cultural divisions. Unionists are overwhelmingly Protestant, descendants of mainly Scottish, English, Welsh and Huguenot settlers and indigenous Irishmen who had converted to one of the Protestant denominations.

Nationalists are predominantly Catholic and descend from the population predating the settlement, with a minority from Scottish Highlanders as well as some converts from Protestantism. Discrimination against nationalists under the Stormont government (1921–1972) gave rise to the nationalist civil rights movement in the 1960s. Some 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. Whatever the cause, the existence of discrimination, and the manner in which Nationalist anger at it was handled, was a major contributing factor which led to the long-running conflict known as the Troubles. The political unrest went through its most violent phase in recent times between 1968 and 1994.

The main actors have been the Provisional Irish Republican Army and other republican groups who wish to bring about an end of the union with Great Britain, and various loyalist paramilitary groups who wish to maintain the union. The police force (the Royal Ulster Constabulary) and the British army were charged with maintaining law and order, though were frequently attacked by the nationalist community and republican paramilitaries who claimed that they were protagonists in the conflict.

As a consequence of the worsening security situation autonomous regional government for Northern Ireland was suspended in 1972. Since mid-1997, the main paramilitary group, the Provisional IRA, has observed a 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 were suspended by the British Government in 2002 after Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) allegations of spying by people working for Sinn Féin at the Assembly ( Stormontgate). The resulting case against the accused Sinn Féin member collapsed and the defendant later admitted to being a British agent. Politicians elected to the Assembly at the 2003 Assembly Election were called together on 15 May 2006 under the Northern Ireland Act 2006 for the purpose of electing a First Minister of Northern Ireland and a deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and choosing the members of an Executive (before 25 November, 2006) as a preliminary step to the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland. Another election was held on 7 March 2007 and this Assembly sat following the return of devolved government in May 2007

On 28 July 2005, the Provisional IRA declared an end to its campaign and has since decommissioned what is thought to be all of its arsenal. This final act of decommissioning was performed in accordance with the Belfast Agreement of 1998, and under the watch of the International Decommissioning Body and two external church witnesses. Many unionists, however, remain sceptical. This IRA decommissioning is in contrast to Loyalist paramilitaries who have so far failed to decommission many weapons. It is not thought that this will have a major effect on further political progress as political parties linked to Loyalist paramilitaries do not attract significant support and will not be in a position to form part of a government in the near future. See Independent International Commission on Decommissioning

Citizenship and identity

People from Northern Ireland are British citizens on the same basis as people from any other part of the United Kingdom.

The 1998 Belfast Agreement between the British and Irish governments provides that:

it is the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly [the two governments] confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland.

As a result of the Agreement, the Constitution of Ireland was amended so that people from Northern Ireland may be regarded as Irish citizens on the same basis as people from any other part of the island of Ireland.

Neither government, however, extends its citizenship to all persons born in Northern Ireland. Both governments exclude some people born in Northern Ireland (e.g. certain persons born in Northern Ireland neither of whose parents is a UK or Irish national).

In general, Protestants in Northern Ireland see themselves primarily as being British, while Roman Catholics regard themselves primarily as being Irish. Several studies and surveys performed between 1971 and 2006 show this.

This does not however, account for the complex identities within Northern Ireland, given that many of the population regard themselves as "Ulster" or "Northern Irish", either primarily, or as a secondary identity. A 1999 survey showed that 51% of Protestants felt "Not at all Irish" and 41% only "weakly Irish"


(Former) Flag of Northern Ireland (unofficial since 1972).
Flag of Ireland
Former Governmental Coat of Arms of Northern Ireland 1925-72

Today, Northern Ireland comprises a diverse patchwork of communities, whose national loyalties are represented in some areas by flags flown from lamp posts. The Union Flag and Northern Ireland Flag therefore appear in some loyalist areas, with the Irish national flag of the Republic of Ireland, the tricolour, appearing in some republican areas. Even kerbstones in some areas are painted red-white-blue or green-white-orange (or gold), depending on whether local people express unionist/loyalist or nationalist/republican sympathies.

The only official flag is the Union Flag. The Northern Ireland flag was officially the former Governmental Northern Ireland banner (also known as the " Ulster Banner" or "Red Hand Flag") and was based on the arms of the former Parliament of Northern Ireland, and was used by the Government of Northern Ireland and its agencies between 1953 and 1972. Since 1972, it has no official status. It remains, however used uniquely to represent Northern Ireland in certain sporting events. The arms from which the Ulster Banner derives were themselves based on the flag of Ulster.

The Union Flag and the Ulster Banner are typically only used by Unionists. Nationalists generally eschew symbols which uniquely represent Northern Ireland; some instead use the Irish Tricolour, particularly at sporting events. Many people, however, prefer to avoid flags altogether because of their divisive nature. Paramilitary groups on both sides have also developed their own flags. Some unionists also occasionally use the flags of secular and religious organisations to which they belong.

Some groups, including the Irish Rugby Football Union and the Church of Ireland have used the Flag of St. Patrick as a symbol of Ireland which lacks nationalist or unionist connotations. However, it is felt by some to be a loyalist flag, as it was used to represent Ireland when the whole island was part of the UK and is used by some British army regiments. Foreign flags are also found, such as the Palestinian flags in some Nationalist areas and Israeli flags in some Unionist areas, which represent general comparisons made by both sides with conflicts in the wider world.

The United Kingdom national anthem God Save the Queen is often played at state events in Northern Ireland. At some cross-community events, however, the Londonderry Air (also known as Danny Boy) may be played as a neutral substitute.

At the Commonwealth Games, the Northern Ireland team uses the Ulster Banner as its flag and Danny Boy / A Londonderry Air is used as its national anthem. The Northern Ireland football team also uses the Ulster Banner as its flag but uses God Save The Queen as its national anthem. Major Gaelic Athletic Association matches are opened by the Ireland national anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann (The Soldiers Song), which is also used by some other all-Ireland sporting organisations. Since 1995, the Ireland national rugby union team has used a specially commissioned song, Ireland's Call, in place of, or alongside, the Ireland national anthem at international matches.

Northern Irish murals have become well-known features of Northern Ireland, depicting past and present divisions, both also documenting peace and cultural diversity. Almost 2,000 murals have been documented in Northern Ireland since the 1970s (see Conflict Archive on the Internet/Murals).

Geography and climate

Map of Northern Ireland

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 151 square miles (392 km²) the largest freshwater lake both on the island of Ireland and in the British Isles. A second extensive lake system is centred on Lower and Upper Lough Erne in Fermanagh. The largest island of Northern Ireland is Rathlin, off the Antrim coast. Strangford Lough is the largest inlet in the British Isles, covering 150 km² (58 sq mi).

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 m (2782 ft), Northern Ireland's highest point. Belfast's most prominent peak is Cave Hill. The volcanic activity which created the Antrim Plateau also formed the eerily geometric pillars of the Giant's Causeway on the north Antrim coast. Also in north Antrim are the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Mussenden Temple and the Glens of Antrim.

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.

Highest maximum temperature: 30.8 °C (87.4 °F) at Knockarevan, near Garrison, County Fermanagh on 30 June 1976 and at Belfast on 12 July 1983.

Lowest minimum temperature: -17.5 °C (0.5 °F) at Magherally, near Banbridge, County Down on 1 January 1979.


Northern Ireland consists of six counties:

  • County Antrim
  • County Armagh
  • County Down
  • County Fermanagh
  • County Londonderry
  • County Tyrone

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 of those named after the counties from which they derive their name. Fermanagh District Council most closely follows the borders of the county from which it takes its name. Coleraine Borough Council, on the other hand, derives its name from the town of Coleraine in County Londonderry.

Although counties are no longer used for governmental purpose, they remain a popular means of describing where places are. They are officially used while applying for an Irish Passport, which requires the applicant to state their 'County of Birth' - which then appears in both Irish and English on the Passport's information page, as opposed to the town or city of birth on the United Kingdom Passport.

The county boundaries still appear on Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland Maps and the Phillips Street Atlases, among others. With their decline in official use, there is often confusion surrounding towns and cities which lie near county boundaries, such as Belfast and Lisburn, which are split between counties Down and Antrim (the majorities of both cities, however, are in Antrim)


There are 5 major settlements with city status in Northern Ireland:

  • Armagh
  • Belfast
  • Derry
  • Lisburn
  • Newry

Towns and villages

  • Ahoghill, Antrim, Annalong, Annaclone
  • Ballycastle, Ballyclare, Ballykelly, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Ballynahinch, Banbridge, Bangor, Bushmills
  • Carnmoney, Carrickfergus, Castledawson, Castlerock, Coalisland, Comber, Coleraine, Cookstown, Craigavon, Crossmaglen, Crumlin,

Corbet, Cushendall

  • Donaghadee, Downpatrick, Dromore, Dundonald, Dungannon, Dungiven, Dromore, Donaghcloney
  • Enniskillen
  • Glengormley, Garvagh, Gilford
  • Garrison
  • Hillsborough, Holywood
  • Kilkeel
  • Larne, Limavady, Lurgan, Loughbrickland
  • Magherafelt, Macosquin
  • Newcastle, Newtownards, Newtownstewart
  • Omagh
  • Portrush, Portstewart, Portadown, Portaferry, Poyntzpass, Portballintrae
  • Rasharkin, Rathfriland
  • Strabane, Scarva, Seapatrick
  • Warrenpoint

Variations in geographic nomenclature

Many people inside and outside Northern Ireland use other names for Northern Ireland, depending on their point of view.


  • Ulster (Ulaidh) is strictly the historic province of Ulster, six of its nine counties are in Northern Ireland. The term "Ulster" is widely used by the Unionist community and the British press as shorthand for Northern Ireland. There have, in the past, been calls for the official name of Northern Ireland to be changed to Ulster.
  • The Province (an Chúige) refers literally the historic Irish province of Ulster but today is used widely, within this community, as shorthand for Northern Ireland. United Kingdom Government documents (when referring to England and Scotland as countries and to Wales as "The Principality", typically refer to Northern Ireland as "the Province"


  • North of Ireland (Tuaisceart na hÉireann) - to link Northern Ireland to the rest of the island, by describing it as being in the 'north of Ireland' and so by implication playing down Northern Ireland's links with Great Britain. (The northernmost point in Ireland, in County Donegal, is in fact in the Republic.)
  • North-East Ireland (Oirthuaisceart Éireann) - used in the same way as the "North of Ireland" is used.
  • The Six Counties (na Sé Chontae) - language used by republicans e.g. Republican Sinn Féin, which avoids using the name given 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 opposed to the Belfast Agreement, is described as being "The Free State", referring to the Irish Free State, the Republic's old name.
  • British-Occupied Ireland. Similar in tone to the Occupied Six Counties this term is used by more dogmatic anti- Good Friday Agreement republicans who still hold that the First Dáil was the last legitimate government of Ireland and that all governments since have been foreign imposed usurpations of Irish national self-determination.
  • Fourth Green Field (An Cheathrú Gort Glas). From the song Four Green Fields by Tommy Makem which describes Ireland as divided with one of the four green fields (the traditional provinces of Ireland) being In strangers hands, referring to the partition of Ireland.


  • The North (An Tuaisceart) - used to describe Northern Ireland in the same way that "The South" is used to describe the Republic of Ireland.
  • Norn Iron - is an informal and affectionate local nickname used by both nationalists and unionists to refer to Northern Ireland, derived from the pronunciation of the words "Northern Ireland" in an exaggerated Ulster accent (particularly one from the Greater Belfast area). The phrase is seen as a light-hearted way to refer to the province, based as it is on regional pronunciation. Often refers to the Northern Ireland national football team.

Use of language for geography

Notwithstanding the ancient realm of Dál Riata which extended into Scotland, disagreement on names, and the reading of political symbolism into the use or non-use of a word, also attaches itself 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 still 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". Some nationalist and republican-leaning media outlets in Ireland almost always use "North of Ireland" or the "Six Counties".

Government and cultural organizations in Northern Ireland, particularly those pre-dating the 1980s, often use the word "Ulster" in their title; for example, the University of Ulster, the Ulster Museum the Ulster Orchestra, and BBC Radio Ulster.

Many news bulletins since the 1990s have opted to avoid all contentious terms and use the official name, Northern Ireland. The North is still used by some news bulletins in the Republic of Ireland, to the annoyance of some Unionists. Bertie Ahern, the previous Taoiseach, now almost always refers to Northern Ireland in public, having previously only used 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 News Letter 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, usually use the language of the unionist community, while others, such as The Guardian use the terms interchangeably. The media in the Republic of Ireland use the names preferred by nationalists. Whether this is all an official editorial policy or a personal preference by the writers is unknown.

The division in nomenclature is seen particularly in sports and religions associated with one of the communities. Gaelic games use Derry, 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 the Queen could change the name. The Queen has not intervened 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.


Northern Ireland's legal and administrative systems were adopted from those in place in pre-partition United Kingdom, and was developed by its devolved government from 1922 until 1972. From 1972 until 1999 (except for brief periods), laws and administration relating to Northern Ireland have been handled directly from Westminster. Between the year 1999 and 2002, and since May 2007 devolution has returned to Northern Ireland.


The Northern Ireland economy is the smallest of the four economies making up the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland has traditionally had an industrial economy, most notably in shipbuilding, rope manufacture and textiles, but most heavy industry has since been replaced by services, primarily the public sector. Tourism also plays a big role in the local economy. More recently the economy has benefited from major investment by many large multi-national corporations into high tech industry. These large organisations are attracted by government subsidies and the highly skilled workforce in Northern Ireland.

East/West Bias For some time there have been allegations that the east of the province (mainly the Belfast area) has been given preferential treatment over the towns and cities in the western region (mainly Derry/Londonderry), the divisionary boundary being seen as the Bann River which divides Northern Ireland into two regions.

This belief was further advanced when, in 1969, plans were revealed for a second university (Queens University in Belfast being the first). The decision to place this into Coleraine, rather than the second largest city - Derry/Londonderry, was taken against the wishes of many of the unionist leaders in Stormont at the time.

According to figures obtained from Hansard, and questions raised by Foyle MP Mark Durkan in the House of Commons, the parliamentary area of South Belfast has received more funding from Invest NI than all the council areas in the west of the province combined. Furthermore, in terms of civil service jobs, the vast majority are centred in the greater Belfast area.


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). Since 1987 pubs have been allowed to open on Sundays, despite some limited vocal opposition.


Ulster Cycle

The Ulster Cycle is a large body of prose and verse centring around the traditional heroes of the Ulaid in what is now eastern Ulster. This is one of the four major cycles of Irish Mythology. The cycle centres around the reign of Conchobar mac Nessa, who is said to have been king of Ulster around the time of Christ. He ruled from Emain Macha (now Navan Fort near Armagh), and had a fierce rivalry with queen Medb and king Ailill of Connacht and their ally, Fergus mac Róich, former king of Ulster. The foremost hero of the cycle is Conchobar's nephew Cúchulainn.

Languages and Dialects

English language

The Mid Ulster dialect of English spoken in Northern Ireland shows influence from Scotland, 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 spoken as a first language by almost 100% of the Northern Irish population, though under the Good Friday Agreement, Irish and Ulster Scots (one of the dialects of the Scots language), sometimes known as Ullans, have recognition as "part of the cultural wealth of Northern Ireland".

Irish (Irish Gaelic) language

The Irish language is the native language of the whole island of Ireland. It was spoken predominantly throughout what is now Northern Ireland prior to the settlement of Protestants from Great Britain in the 17th Century. Most placenames throughout Northern Ireland are anglicised versions of their Gaelic originals. These Gaelic placenames include thousands of lanes, roads, townlands, towns, villages and all of its modern cities. Examples include Belfast- derived from Béal Feirste, Shankill- derived from Sean Cill and Lough Neagh- derived from Loch nEathach.

In Northern Ireland the Irish language has long been associated with Irish nationalism, however this association only developed gradually. The language was seen as a common heritage and indeed the object of affection by many prominent 19th century Protestant republicans and Protestant unionists. Verbally there are 3 main dialects in the island of Ireland - Ulster, Munster and Connaught. Speakers of each dialect often find others difficult to understand. Speakers in Northern Ireland are naturally from the Ulster dialect.

The early years of the 20th century, the language became a political football throughout Ireland as Republican activists became increasing linked with it. In the 20th century, the language became in Unionist eyes increasingly polarised for political ends and many in that community would blame Sinn Féin in this regard. After Ireland was partitioned, the language was largely rejected in the education system of the new Northern Ireland. It is argued that the predominant use of the English language may have served to exacerbate the Troubles.

The erection by some Local District Councils of legal bilingual street names (English/Irish), invariably in predominantly Catholic/Nationalist/Republican districts, may be perceived as creating a 'chill factor' by Unionists and as such not conducive to fostering good cross community relationships. However other regions in the United Kingdom, such as Wales and Scotland, enjoy the use of Bilingual signs in Welsh and Scots Gaelic respectively. Because of this, nationalists in Northern Ireland argue for equality in this regard. In responses to the 2001 census in Northern Ireland 10% of the population claimed "some knowledge of Irish", 4.7% to "speak, read, write and understand" Irish. It was not asked as part of the census but in a poll, 1% of respondents said they speak it as their main language at home. Following a public consultation, the decision was taken not to introduce specific legislation for the Irish language at this time, despite 75% of respondants stating that they were in favour of such legislation.

Ulster Gaelic

Ulster Gaelic/Ulster Irish or Donegal Gaelic/Irish, is the dialect which is nearest to Scots Gaelic. Some aspects of the dialect are more similar to Scots Gaelic than to the Gaelic dialects of Connacht and Munster. The dialects of East Ulster - those of Rathlin Island and the Glens of Antrim - were very similar to the Scots Gaelic dialect formerly spoken in Argyll, the part of Scotland nearest to Rathlin Island. The Ulster Gaelic is the most central dialect of Gaelic, both geographically and linguistically, of the once vast Gaelic speaking world, stretching from the south of Ireland to the north of Scotland. At the beginning of the 20th century, Munster Irish was favoured by many revivalists, with a shift to Connaught Irish in the 1960s, which is now the preferred dialect by many in the Republic. Many younger speakers of Irish experience less confusion with dialects due to the expansion of Irish-language broadcasting (TG4) and the exposure to a variety of dialects. There are fewer problems regarding written Irish as there is a standardised spelling and grammar, created by the government of the Republic, which claimed to reflect a compromise between various dialect forms. However, Ulster Irish speakers find that Ulster forms are generally not favoured by the standard.

The dialect is often stigmatised in the non Ulster counties of the Republic of Ireland, although all learners of Irish in Northern Ireland use this form of the language. Self-instruction courses in Ulster Irish include Now You’re Talking and Tús maith. The writer Séamus Ó Searcaigh RIP, once warned about the Irish Government's attempts at producing a Caighdeán or Standard for the Gaelic language in Ireland in 1953, when he wrote that what will emerge will be "Gaedhilg nach mbéidh suim againn inntí mar nár fhás sí go nádúrtha as an teangaidh a thug Gaedhil go hÉirinn" (A Gaelic which is of no interest to us, for it has not developed naturally from the language brought to Ireland by the Gaels). The Ulster Irish dialect is spoken throughout the area of the historical nine county Ulster, in particular the Gaeltacht region of County Donegal and the Gaeltacht Quarter of West Belfast.

Ulster Scots

Ulster Scots comprises varieties of the Scots language spoken in Northern Ireland. Aodán Mac Poilín states that "While most argue that Ulster-Scots is a dialect or variant of Scots, some have argued or implied that Ulster-Scots is a separate language from Scots. The case for Ulster-Scots being a distinct language, made at a time when the status of Scots itself was insecure, is so bizarre that it is unlikely to have been a linguistic argument." Approximately 2% of the population claim to speak Ulster Scots, however the number speaking it as their main language in their home is negligible. Classes at colleges can now be taken but for a native English speaker "[the language] is comparatively accessible, and even at its most intense can be understood fairly easily with the help of a glossary." The St Andrews Agreement recognises the need to "enhance and develop the Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture".

Ethnic minority languages

There are an increasing number of ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland. Chinese and Urdu are spoken by Northern Ireland's Asian communities; though the Chinese community is often referred to as the "third largest" community in Northern Ireland, it is tiny by international standards. Since the accession of new member states to the European Union in 2004, Central and Eastern European languages, particularly Polish, are becoming increasingly common.

Sign language

The most common sign language in Northern Ireland is British Sign Language (BSL), but as Catholics tended to send their deaf children to schools in Dublin (St Joseph's Institute for Deaf Boys and St. Mary's Institute for Deaf Girls), Irish Sign Language (ISL) is commonly used in the Nationalist community. The two languages are not related: BSL is in the British family (which also includes Auslan), and ISL is in the French family (which also includes American Sign Language).


Education in Northern Ireland differs slightly from systems used elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Unlike most areas of the United Kingdom, in the last year of Primary school, children can sit the eleven plus transfer test, and the results determine whether they attend grammar schools or secondary schools. This system is due to be changed in 2008 amidst some controversy.

Northern Ireland's state (controlled) schools are open to all children in Northern Ireland, although in practice are mainly attended by those from Protestant or non-religious backgrounds . There is a separate publicly funded school system provided for Roman Catholics, although Roman Catholics are free to attend state schools (and some non-Roman Catholics attend Roman Catholic schools). Integrated schools, which attempt to ensure a balance in enrolment between pupils of Protestant, Roman Catholic and other faiths (or none) are becoming increasingly popular, although Northern Ireland still has a primarily de facto religiously segregated education system. In the Primary School Sector, forty schools (8.9% of the total number) are Integrated Schools and thirty two (7.2% of the total number) are Gaelscoileanna.


  • List of Gaelic medium Primary schools in Northern Ireland
  • List of Primary schools in Northern Ireland
  • List of Grammar schools in Northern Ireland
  • List of Secondary schools in Northern Ireland
  • List of Integrated Schools in Northern Ireland
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