Northern Ireland is a top-level constituent unit of the United Kingdom in the northeast of Ireland. It is variously described as a country, province, region, or “part” of the United Kingdom, amongst other terms. Northern Ireland shares a border to the south and west with the Republic of Ireland. In 2011, its population was 1,810,863, constituting about 30% of the island’s total population and about 3% of the UK’s population. Established by the Northern Ireland Act 1998 as part of the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland Assembly holds responsibility for a range of devolved policy matters, while other areas are reserved for the British government. Northern Ireland co-operates with the Republic of Ireland in some areas, and the Agreement granted the Republic the ability to “put forward views and proposals” with “determined efforts to resolve disagreements between the two governments”.
Northern Ireland was created in 1921, when Ireland was partitioned between Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland by an act of the British parliament. Unlike Southern Ireland, which would become the Irish Free State in 1922, the majority of Northern Ireland’s population were unionists, who wanted to remain within the United Kingdom, most of whom were the Protestant descendants of colonists from Great Britain; however, a significant minority, mostly Catholics, were nationalists who wanted a united Ireland independent of British rule. Today, the former generally see themselves as British and the latter generally see themselves as Irish, while a distinct Northern Irish or Ulster identity is claimed both by a large minority of Catholics and Protestants and by many of those who are non-aligned.
For most of the 20th century, when it came into existence, Northern Ireland was marked by discrimination and hostility between these two sides in what First Minister of Northern Ireland David Trimble called a “cold house” for Catholics. In the late 1960s, conflict between state forces and chiefly Protestant unionists on the one hand, and chiefly Catholic nationalists on the other, erupted into three decades of violence known as the Troubles, which claimed over 3,500 lives and caused over 50,000 casualties. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was a major step in the peace process, including the decommissioning of weapons, although sectarianism and religious segregation still remain major social problems and sporadic violence has continued.
Northern Ireland has historically been the most industrialised region of Ireland. After declining as a result of the political and social turmoil of the Troubles, its economy has grown significantly since the late 1990s. The initial growth came from the “peace dividend” and the links and increased trade with the Republic of Ireland, continuing with a significant increase in tourism, investment and business from around the world. Unemployment in Northern Ireland peaked at 17.2% in 1986, dropping to 6.1% for June–August 2014 and down by 1.2 percentage points over the year, similar to the UK figure of 6.2%. 58.2% of those unemployed had been unemployed for over a year.
Prominent artists and sports persons from Northern Ireland include Van Morrison, Rory McIlroy, Joey Dunlop, Wayne McCullough and George Best. Some people from Northern Ireland prefer to identify as Irish (e.g., poet Seamus Heaney and actor Liam Neeson) while others prefer to identify as British (e.g. actor Kenneth Branagh). Cultural links between Northern Ireland, the rest of Ireland, and the rest of the UK are complex, with Northern Ireland sharing both the culture of Ireland and the culture of the United Kingdom. In many sports, the island of Ireland fields a single team, a notable exception being association football. Northern Ireland competes separately at the Commonwealth Games, and people from Northern Ireland may compete for either Great Britain or Ireland at the Olympic Games.
The region that is now Northern Ireland was the bedrock of the Irish war of resistance against English programmes of colonialism in the late 16th century. The English-controlled Kingdom of Ireland had been declared by the English king Henry VIII in 1542, but Irish resistance made English control fragmentary. Following Irish defeat at the Battle of Kinsale, though, the region’s Gaelic, Roman Catholic aristocracy fled to continental Europe in 1607 and the region became subject to major programmes of colonialism by Protestant English (mainly Anglican) and Scottish (mainly Presbyterian) settlers. A rebellion in 1641 by Irish aristocrats against English rule resulted in a massacre of settlers in Ulster in the context of a war breaking out between England, Scotland and Ireland fuelled by religious intolerance in government. Victories by English forces in that war and further Protestant victories in the Williamite War in Ireland toward the close of the 17th century solidified Anglican rule in Ireland. In Northern Ireland, the victories of the Siege of Derry (1689) and the Battle of the Boyne (1690) in this latter war are still celebrated by some Protestants (both Anglican and Presbyterian).
Following the victory of 1691, and contrary to the terms of the Treaty of Limerick, after the Pope who had been allied to William of Orange recognised James II as continuing king of Great Britain and Ireland in place of William, a series of penal laws was passed by the Anglican ruling class in Ireland. Their intention was to materially disadvantage the Catholic community and, to a lesser extent, the Presbyterian community. In the context of open institutional discrimination, the 18th century saw secret, militant societies develop in communities in the region and act on sectarian tensions in violent attacks. These events escalated at the end of the century following an event known as the Battle of the Diamond, which saw the supremacy of the Anglican and Presbyterian Peep o’Day Boys over the Catholic Defenders and leading to the formation of the Anglican Orange Order. A rebellion in 1798 led by the cross-community Belfast-based Society of the United Irishmen and inspired by the French Revolution sought to break the constitutional ties between Ireland and Britain and unite Irish people of all religions. Following this, in an attempt to quell sectarianism and force the removal of discriminatory laws (and to prevent the spread of French-style republicanism to Ireland), the government of the Kingdom of Great Britain pushed for the two kingdoms to be merged. The new state, formed in 1801, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, was governed from a single government and parliament based in London.
Between 1717 and 1775 some 250,000 people from Ulster emigrated to the British North American colonies. It is estimated that there are more than 27 million Scotch-Irish Americans now living in the US.
Partition of Ireland
During the 19th century, legal reforms started in the late 18th century continued to remove statutory discrimination against Catholics, and progressive programmes enabled tenant farmers to buy land from landlords. By the close of the century, autonomy for Ireland within the United Kingdom, known as Home Rule, was regarded as highly likely. In 1912, after decades of obstruction from the House of Lords, Home Rule became a near-certainty. A clash between the House of Commons and House of Lords over a controversial budget produced the Parliament Act 1911, which enabled the veto of the Lords to be overturned. The House of Lords veto had been the unionists’ main guarantee that Home Rule would not be enacted, because the majority of members of the House of Lords were unionists. In response, opponents to Home Rule, from Conservative and Unionist Party leaders such as Andrew Bonar Law and Dublin-based barrister Sir Edward Carson to militant working class unionists in Ireland, threatened the use of violence. In 1914, they smuggled thousands of rifles and rounds of ammunition from Imperial Germany for use by the Ulster Volunteers (UVF), a paramilitary organisation opposed to the implementation of Home Rule.
Unionists were in a minority in Ireland as a whole, but in the northern province of Ulster they were a very large majority in County Antrim and County Down, small majorities in County Armagh and County Londonderry and a substantial minority in the rest of the province. These four counties, as well as County Fermanagh and County Tyrone, would later constitute Northern Ireland. Most of the remaining 26 counties which later became the Republic of Ireland were overwhelmingly majority-nationalist.
During the Home Rule Crisis the possibility was discussed of a “temporary” partition of these six counties from the rest of Ireland. In 1914, the Third Home Rule Bill received Royal Assent as the Government of Ireland Act 1914. However, its implementation was suspended before it came into effect because of the outbreak of the First World War, and the Amending Bill to partition Ireland was abandoned. The war was expected to last only a few weeks but in fact lasted four years. By the end of the war (during which the 1916 Easter Rising had taken place), the Act was seen as unimplementable. Public opinion among nationalists had shifted during the war from a demand for home rule to one for full independence. In 1919, David Lloyd George proposed a new bill which would divide Ireland into two Home Rule areas: twenty-six counties being ruled from Dublin and six being ruled from Belfast. Straddling these two areas would be a shared Lord Lieutenant of Ireland who would appoint both governments and a Council of Ireland, which Lloyd George believed would evolve into an all-Ireland parliament.
Events overtook the government. In the general election of 1918, the pro-independence Sinn Féin won 73 of the 105 parliamentary seats in Ireland and unilaterally established the First Dáil, an extrajudicial parliament in Ireland. Ireland was partitioned between Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland in 1921 under the terms of Lloyd George’s Government of Ireland Act 1920 during the Anglo-Irish War between Irish republican and British forces. The war ended on 6 December 1921, with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which created the Irish Free State. Under the terms of the treaty, Northern Ireland would become part of the Free State unless the government opted out by presenting an address to the king, although in practice partition remained in place.
As expected, the Houses of the Parliament of Northern Ireland resolved on 7 December 1922 (the day after the establishment of the Irish Free State) to exercise its right to opt out of the Free State by making an address to the King. The text of the address was:
Most Gracious Sovereign, We, your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Senators and Commons of Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, having learnt of the passing of the Irish Free State Constitution Act 1922, being the Act of Parliament for the ratification of the Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, do, by this humble Address, pray your Majesty that the powers of the Parliament and Government of the Irish Free State shall no longer extend to Northern Ireland.
Shortly afterwards, the Boundary Commission was established to decide on the territorial boundaries between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. Owing to the outbreak of civil war in the Free State, the work of the commission was delayed until 1925. Leaders in Dublin expected a substantial reduction in the territory of Northern Ireland, with nationalist areas moving to the Free State. However the commission’s report recommended only that some small portions of land should be ceded from Northern Ireland to the Free State and even that a small amount of land should be ceded from the Free State to Northern Ireland. To prevent argument, this report was suppressed and, in exchange for a waiver to the Free State’s obligations to the UK’s public debt and the dissolution of the Council of Ireland (sought by the Government of Northern Ireland), the initial six-county border was maintained with no changes.
In June 1940, to encourage the neutral 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 Government of Northern Ireland that they had made the offer to the Dublin government, and De Valera’s rejection was not publicised until 1970.
The Ireland Act 1949 gave the first legal guarantee that the region would not cease to be part of the United Kingdom without the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland.
The Troubles, which started in the late 1960s, consisted of about thirty years of recurring acts of intense violence during which 3,254 people were killed with over 50,000 casualties. From 1969 to 2003 there were over 36,900 shooting incidents and over 16,200 bombings or attempted bombings associated with The Troubles. The conflict was caused by the disputed status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom and the discrimination against the Irish nationalist minority by the dominant unionist majority. From 1967 to 1972 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), which modelled itself on the US civil rights movement, led a campaign of civil resistance to anti-Catholic discrimination in housing, employment, policing, and electoral procedures. The franchise for local government elections included only rate-payers and their spouses, and so excluded over a quarter of the electorate. While the majority of disenfranchised electors were Protestant, but Catholics were over-represented since they were poorer and had more adults still living in the family home.
NICRA’s campaign, seen by many unionists as an Irish republican front, and the violent reaction to it, proved to be a precursor to a more violent period. As early as 1969, armed campaigns of paramilitary groups began, 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 United Ireland, 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 position 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. Republicans regarded the state forces as combatants in the conflict, pointing to the 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 been investigated, although the extent to which such collusion occurred is still hotly disputed.
As a consequence of the worsening security situation, autonomous regional government for Northern Ireland was suspended in 1972. 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. In 1973, Northern Ireland held a referendum to determine if it should remain in the United Kingdom, or be part of a united Ireland. The vote went heavily in favour (98.9%) of maintaining the status quo. Approximately 57.5% of the total electorate voted in support, but only 1% of Catholics voted following a boycott organised by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).
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 of voters in Northern Ireland decides otherwise. The Constitution of Ireland was amended in 1999 to remove a claim of the “Irish nation” to sovereignty over the whole of Ireland a claim qualified by an acknowledgement that Ireland could only exercise legal control over the territory formerly known as the Irish Free State.
First Minister Ian Paisley (DUP), his deputy Martin McGuinness (Sinn Féin) and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond in 2008.
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 each jurisdiction. This aspect was also central to the Belfast Agreement which was signed in 1998 and ratified by referendums held simultaneously in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. At the same time, 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. It established a devolved power-sharing government within Northern Ireland, which must consist of both unionist and nationalist 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.
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 Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and two external church witnesses. Many unionists, however, remain sceptical. The International Commission later confirmed that the main loyalist paramilitary groups, the UDA, UVF and the Red Hand Commando, had decommissioned what is thought to be all of their arsenals, witnessed by a former Archbishop and a former top civil servant.
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 and 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.
Following the election held on 7 March 2007, devolved government returned on 8 May 2007 with Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin deputy leader Martin McGuinness taking office as First Minister and deputy First Minister, respectively. In its white paper on Brexit the United Kingdom government reiterated its commitment to the Belfast Agreement. With regard to Northern Ireland’s status, it said that the UK Government’s “clearly-stated preference is to retain Northern Ireland’s current constitutional position: as part of the UK, but with strong links to Ireland”.