Skip to main content
Select Source:

Ireland, Northern

Northern Ireland, division of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (2011 pop. 1,810,863), 5,462 sq mi (14,147 sq km), NE Ireland. Made up of six of the nine counties of the historic province of Ulster in NE Ireland, it is frequently called Ulster. The capital is Belfast.

Land, People, Economy, and Government

The land is mountainous and has few natural resources. It comprises 26 districts. English is the official language. The population is 48% Protestant and 45% Catholic. Farming (livestock, dairy products, cereals, potatoes) is the largest single occupation. Heavy industry is concentrated in and around Belfast, one of the chief ports of the British Isles. Machinery and equipment manufacturing, food processing, and textile and electronics manufacturing are the leading industries; papermaking, furniture manufacturing, and shipbuilding are also important. Northern Ireland's fine linens are famous.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has limited devolved powers from the British Parliament, and often has been suspended since its establishment in 1999. The government is based on a power-sharing arrangement that requires that its members include a minimum number of both Protestants and Catholics, and that those members have the support of the representatives elected by their respective communities. Northern Ireland has 18 representatives in the British Parliament.


A Troubled History

Northern Ireland's relatively distinct history began in the early 17th cent., when, after the suppression of an Irish rebellion, much land was confiscated by the British crown and "planted" with Scottish and English settlers. Ulster took on a Protestant character as compared with the rest of Ireland; but there was no question of political separation until the late 19th cent. when William Gladstone presented (1886) his first proposal for Home Rule for Ireland. The largely Protestant population of the north feared domination under Home Rule by the Catholic majority in the south. In addition, industrial Ulster was bound economically more to England than to the rest of Ireland.

Successive schemes for Home Rule widened the rift, so that by the outbreak of World War I civil war in Ireland was an immediate danger. The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 attempted to solve the problem by enacting Home Rule separately for the two parts of Ireland, thus creating the province of Northern Ireland. However, the Irish Free State, now the Republic of Ireland (see Ireland, Republic of), which was established in 1922, refused to recognize the finality of the partition; and violence erupted frequently on both sides of the border.

The late 1960s marked a new stage in the region's troubled history. The Catholic minority, which suffered economic and political discrimination, had grown steadily through immigration from the Republic. In 1968 civil-rights protests by Catholics led to widespread violence. Prime Minister Terence O'Neill had sought to end anti-Catholic bias as part of his policy of fostering closer ties between Ulster and the Irish Republic, but opponents within his ruling Unionist party forced his resignation in Apr., 1969. His successor, James Chichester-Clark, was unable to restrain the growing unrest and in August called in British troops to help restore order.

The IRA and Sectarian Struggle

At the end of 1969 a split occurred in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which is the illegal military arm of the Sinn Fein party; the new "provisional" wing of the IRA was made up of radical nationalists. Brian Faulkner became leader of the Unionist party and prime minister of Northern Ireland in Mar., 1971, and began a policy of imprisoning IRA and other militants. However, the IRA and the Ulster Defense Association, a Protestant terrorist group, continued and even intensified their activities.

On Mar. 30, 1972, the British prime minister, Edward Heath, suspended the government and appointed William Whitelaw secretary of state for Northern Ireland. Westminster's direct rule over the province was renewed in Mar., 1973. An assembly was formed in June, 1972, with the Unionist party, a moderate pro-British group, in the majority. In November the Unionist party formed a coalition with the Social Democratic Labor party (SDLP), the major Catholic group, and the nonsectarian Alliance party. A Northern Ireland Executive was formed to exercise day-to-day administration.

In late 1973, the British prime minister, the head of the Executive, and the Irish Republic's prime minister agreed to form a Council of Ireland to promote closer cooperation between Ulster and the Republic. However, both the IRA and Protestant extremists sought to destroy the Executive and the Council, as they found power-sharing between Protestants and Catholics unacceptable. In 1974, hard-line Ulster Protestants won 11 of the province's 12 seats in the British House of Commons and pledged to renegotiate Ulster's constitution in order to end the Protestant-Catholic coalition and progress toward a Council of Ireland.

In May, 1974, militant Protestants sponsored a general strike in the province, and the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed on May 28. The British government then took direct control of the province with the passage of the Northern Ireland Act of 1974. Meanwhile, bombings and other terrorist activities had spread to Dublin and London. In 1979 Lord Mountbatten was assassinated by the IRA, and in 1981 protests broke out in Belfast over the death by hunger strike of Bobby Sands, an IRA member of Parliament.

Throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s terrorist violence by the IRA and other groups remained a problem. An assembly formed in 1982 to propose plans for strengthening legislative and executive autonomy in Northern Ireland was dissolved in 1986 for its lack of progress. In 1985, an Anglo-Irish accord sought to lay the groundwork for talks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Dublin agreed not to contest Northern Ireland's allegiance to Great Britain in exchange for British acknowledgment of the Republic's interest in how Northern Ireland is run. A 1993 Anglo-Irish declaration offered to open negotiations to all parties willing to renounce violence, and in 1994 the IRA and, later, Protestant paramilitary groups declared a cease-fire. Formal talks began in 1995. A resumption of violence (1996) by the IRA threatened to derail the peace process, but negotiations to seek a political settlement went ahead.

In July, 1997, the IRA declared a new cease-fire, and talks begun in September of that year included Sinn Féin. The result was an accord reached in 1998 that provided for a new Northern Ireland Assembly as well as a North-South Ministerial Council to deal with issues of joint interest to the province and the Irish Republic. The Republic of Ireland also agreed to give up territorial claims on Northern Ireland. The formation of a new government was slowed, however, by disagreement over the disarmament of paramilitary groups, but in Dec., 1999, a multiparty government was formed after further negotiations, and Britain ended direct rule of the province. Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble became leader of the Northern Irish government.

In Feb., 2000, however, Britain suspended self-government after the IRA refused to agree to disarm, but subsequent concessions by the IRA led to the resumption of self-government in May. Continued resistance by the IRA to disarming has threatened self-government and led Trimble to resign on July 1, 2001. Subsequently, Britain twice suspended the Northern Irish government in an attempt to avoid its complete collapse. Negotiations on disarming the IRA and other paramilitary groups, however, were relatively fruitless until late 2001, when the IRA began disarming; Trimble subsequently returned to office.

The arrests in 2002 of Sinn Féin government members for intelligence gathering for the IRA threatened the power-sharing government once again, leading Britain to suspend home rule once more, but in 2005 charges against the alleged spies, one of whom was a long-time government informant, were dropped, raising questions about the entire affair. The May, 2003, elections that would have reestablished the assembly were suspended by the British government. The ostensible reason was the insufficient specificity of the IRA's commitment to the peace process, but Trimble and the moderate Unionists also seem likely to suffer losses if the elections were held. Disagreements over the way the IRA's disarming was being handled continued.

When the elections were held in Nov., 2003, the more extreme Protestant and Catholic parties, Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists and the Sinn Féin, outpolled their more moderate counterparts. Home rule remained suspended, but in early 2004 Britain, the Irish Republic, and Northern Irish political parties began a "review" of the 1998 agreement in hopes of reestablishing a Northern Irish government. Subsequent accusations that the IRA was involved in criminal activities threatened any future participation of Sinn Féin in a government. In Apr., 2005, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams called on the IRA to abandon the use of arms and restrict its activities to politics, and an independent report affirmed in September that the IRA had decommissioned its weapons.

In Apr., 2006 the British and Irish governments called for the Northern Irish assembly to begin formation of an executive in May and complete the work before the end of November; if they failed to do so, the members of the assembly would no longer receive their salaries. The assembly reconvened in May, but there was no quick progress in forming an executive. However, talks in October produced some progress, and the November deadline was pushed back to Mar., 2007. In Jan., 2007, Sinn Féin agreed to back the Protestant-dominated Northern Irish police force.

In March, elections for the assembly led to strong showings by the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin, and later in the month the two parties agreed to form a power-sharing government in May. Ian Paisley became first minister. Also in May the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the oldest Protestant paramilitary group, announced that it was renouncing violence; it did not plan then, however, to decommission its weapons, but by June, 2009, it had decommissioned its weapons. British troops ended their military mission in Northern Ireland, which began in 1969, in July, 2007.

UDA factional clashes during the summer of 2007 led to a demand that they decommission their arms or lose funding for a loyalist project associated with the UDA; the social development minister's insistence on the deadline and cutoff of funds led to tensions in the North Irish executive in Oct., 2007, with the DUP and Sinn Féin supporting a more lenient approach to the UDA. In November the UDA announced that its fighters' weapons were being put beyond use (but not decommissioned), and in Jan., 2010, it announced that it had decommissioned its weapons. Violence by republican and unionist splinter groups, some of them operating as criminal gangs, remains a problem.

Paisley retired as first minister and was succeeded by Peter Robinson, the new DUP leader, in June, 2008. A dispute over the devolution of justice and policing powers subsequently deadlocked the executive, and it continued until early 2010, when negotiations resulted in an agreement that led (Mar., 2010) to an assembly vote in favor of assuming those responsibilities, passing a significant home-rule milestone. Peter Robinson's tenure as first minister was threatened in late 2009 by a personal and political scandal involving his wife, who was reported to have obtained money from property developers for her lover. The 2011 elections again saw the DUP and Sinn Féin finish strongly ahead in first and second. In late 2012 and early 2013 there were riots and demonstrations by Protestant loyalists in Belfast after the city council voted to greatly reduce the number of days the British flag was flown over city hall.


See A. Blacam, The Black North (1938); M. Wallace, Northern Ireland: Fifty Years of Self-Government (1971); P. Arthur, Northern Ireland Since 1968 (1988); B. Rowthorn, Northern Ireland: The Political Economy of Conflict (1988); F. Gaffikin, Northern Ireland: The Thatcher Years (1990); E. Collins, Killing Rage (with M. McGovern, 1999); G. Mitchell, Making Peace (1999); P. Taylor, Loyalists (1999).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ireland, Northern." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Ireland, Northern." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 10, 2017).

"Ireland, Northern." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 10, 2017 from

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland was formed by the Government of Ireland Act 1920–1. It comprises the six counties of the north-east of the island: Antrim, Down, Armagh, Londonderry, Fermanagh, and Tyrone. To ensure a protestant majority, the nine counties of the historic province of Ulster were rejected as the boundary. Fermanagh and Tyrone, though possessing small catholic majorities, were included to provide a credible geographical entity. The British government had preferred an all-Ulster option, hoping that partition would therefore be temporary. Initially, loyalist opinion was opposed to the establishment of a separate province; but once Northern Ireland had been set up, it was seen as the crucial bulwark against Irish unification.

The artificial character of the province is demonstrated by the awkwardness of its title: parts of Donegal in the Free State/Republic are further north. It is frequently referred to as ‘the six counties’, ‘Stormont’, or ‘the Northern Statelet’, terms revealing the bias of the observer. The decision to draw the boundary according to county lines made little social, economic, or geographical sense. The natural hinterland of the city of Derry is Co. Donegal; Newry was cut off from much of its locale; isolated enclaves of catholics or protestants were created; border areas such as south Armagh saw no justification for being included in the new province; the erratic border itself divided farms, towns, and communities.

The circumstances of the province's formation dictated its turbulent subsequent history. The catholic minority, always over 30 per cent of the population, never accepted partition and usually boycotted the Belfast Parliament. The emerging Free State refused to recognize Northern Ireland. An IRA offensive in early 1922 threatened to destabilize the nascent province. In the Anglo-Irish treaty of December 1921, provision was made for a boundary commission, holding out hope of a substantial alteration of frontier. The commission did not meet until 1925 and no changes were finally made. Not surprisingly, the province established itself along the lines of a protestant state for a protestant people, with a heavy emphasis on security considerations.

After 1925, the province's future seemed more assured but still few concessions were made to the minority. Economic development was retarded by over-dependence on the British Treasury and by over-reliance on declining traditional industries. The government was dominated by narrow landed and commercial interests; all were members of the Orange order and preoccupied with appeasing their protestant constituents. Sir James Craig was prime minister 1921–40, Lord Brooke 1943–63. Unionist confidence was increased by their contribution in supplying bases and ports for Atlantic convoys, contrasting with the Free State's neutrality. However, lack of foresight and general incompetence in government circles caused the effects of German bombing of Belfast to be severe; embarrassingly, fire services had to be secretly begged from Dublin.

The declaration of an Irish republic in 1948 caused the constitutional status of the province to be clarified in the Ireland Act of 1949. Dependence on Britain was increased by the new welfare state; unemployment became the worst in the UK; the disparity between west and east of the province grew wider. But the abject failure of the IRA offensive 1956–62 appeared to remove any immediate threat and increased catholic acceptance of the province. Terence O'Neill's attempts, as premier from 1963, to modernize the economy and reform the sectarian basis of the province highlighted all inherent tensions. Unionists divided over his reforms and the catholic minority demanded more substantial changes, mounting their first effective challenge via the civil rights movement from 1967. Police and special constabulary's reaction to civil rights demonstrations, together with the unionist backlash, resulted in major riots in Derry city and Belfast, and the belated intervention of British troops to restore order and ensure more fundamental reforms. The security situation deteriorated rapidly in 1969–72, resulting in further polarization of the two communities, the alienation of the catholic population from the British army, and the formation of the Provisional IRA. The British government's declaration of direct rule from Westminster in 1972 was followed by the establishment of a power-sharing executive in January 1974, which was brought down as a consequence of the loyalist strike within five months.

The 1970s and 1980s saw a continuous, if limited, IRA offensive against both the security forces and the economy; the growth of loyalist paramilitary retaliation; spates of sectarian assassinations and bombings in the province, in Britain, and occasionally in the Republic. Abortive attempts to restore some form of devolved government only revealed the extent to which violence had hardened divisions. Demands for political status for republican prisoners in 1981 led to further catholic alienation and support for Sinn Fein. While direct rule saw a considerable diminution in governmental discriminatory practices, little progress was made on economic performance. Unionist suspicions concerning British government intentions increased and the British taxpayer was progressively alarmed about the expense of continued involvement.

By 1985 and the Anglo-Irish agreement, attention turned to co-operation between the Republic and the British government on security and political matters. The level of violence, particularly by protestant paramilitaries, increased. A sense of exhaustion after 25 years of conflict, better Anglo-Irish government communications, European and American concern, and, finally, negotiations between the SDLP and Sinn Fein leaders, John Hume and Gerry Adams, all contributed to the Downing Street declaration of December 1993, the IRA cease-fire of August 1994, and the loyalist paramilitary one two months later. After a referendum, administration was handed back in 1998 to a Northern Ireland Assembly of 108 members, of which 24 represented SDLP and 18 Sinn Fein. But hopes for the peace process in the 21st cent. were jeopardized by the reluctance of the IRA to begin serious disarmament, which led to the dissolution of the Assembly in 2003 and the re-imposition of direct rule. Devolved government was restored in 2007 with the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein sharing power.

Michael Hopkinson


Buckland, P. , A History of Northern Ireland (Dublin, 1981);
Wichert, S. , Northern Ireland since 1945 (1991).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Northern Ireland." The Oxford Companion to British History. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Northern Ireland." The Oxford Companion to British History. . (December 10, 2017).

"Northern Ireland." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved December 10, 2017 from

Ireland, Northern

Ireland, Northern Part of the United Kingdom, 26 districts occupying the ne of Ireland, traditionally divided into the six counties of Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone; the capital is Belfast. Other major towns include Derry, Coleraine, Ballymena, Lisburn, Newry, Armagh and Enniskillen. (For land and climate, and pre-1922 history, see Ireland.)


In 1920, the six counties of Ulster became the self-governing province of Northern Ireland with a separate, Protestant-dominated parliament. The British government affirmed the inclusion of Northern Ireland within the UK under the principle of self-determination. The Irish Free State (now Republic of Ireland) constitution upheld the unity of the island of Ireland. In 1955, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) began a campaign of violence for the creation of an independent, unified Ireland. In 1962, the Republic of Ireland condemned the use of terrorism. Northern Catholics felt aggrieved at discrimination in employment, housing and political representation. In 1967, the Civil Rights Association was established to campaign for equal rights. In 1968, civil-rights marches resulted in violent clashes, especially in Derry. Catholic fear of the increasing Protestant domination of local security forces was compounded when the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was supplemented by the sectarian Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). The British Army was brought in to protect the Catholic populations in Belfast and Derry. The IRA and Protestant Loyalist paramilitary organizations, such as the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), increased their campaigns of sectarian violence. In 1972, the Northern Ireland parliament (Stormont) was suspended and replaced by direct rule from Westminster. On January 30, 1972 (‘Bloody Sunday’), British troops shot and killed 13 civil-rights' demonstrators. In 1974 the Council of Ireland, formed by the British and Irish governments to promote cooperation between Ulster and the Irish Republic, quickly collapsed under pressure from a Unionist-led general strike. The IRA campaign widened to include terrorist attacks on Great Britain and British military bases in w Europe. In 1981, hunger strikes by IRA prisoners were more successful in gaining worldwide sympathy. In 1985, the Anglo-Irish Agreement gave the Republic of Ireland a consultative role in the government of Northern Ireland. In 1986, a Northern Ireland Assembly was re-established, but quickly failed under the Unionists' boycott. In 1993, following secret talks between the British government and Sinn Féin, the Downing Street Declaration offered all-party negotiations following a cessation of violence. In 1994, Provisional IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries announced a cease-fire, raising hopes of an end to a sectarian conflict that had claimed more than 2700 lives. In 1996, disputes over the decommissioning of arms stalled the process and the IRA resumed its terrorist campaign on the British mainland. In July 1997, another cease-fire was agreed and, in October, Sinn Féin and Unionists took part in joint peace talks for the first time since partition.;

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ireland, Northern." World Encyclopedia. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Ireland, Northern." World Encyclopedia. . (December 10, 2017).

"Ireland, Northern." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 10, 2017 from

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland

Culture Name

Northern Irish

Alternative Names

Ulsters, Ulster Unionists, Protestant Ulsterites, Loyalists; Republican, Nationalist


Identification. The island of Ireland is known as Eire in Irish Gaelic. The name of the capital city, Belfast, derives from the city's Gaelic name, Beal Feirste, which means "mouth of the sandy ford," referring to a stream that joins the Lagan River.

The state of conflict in Northern Ireland is manifested in the names by which the Northern Irish identify themselves. Ulsters or Ulster Unionists identify themselves by ethnicity, religion, and political bent. These residents are generally Protestants from England who colonized the country in the nineteenth century and earlier supported William of Orange when he wrested the throne of England from the Catholic James II. The Nationalists are native Irish who were ruled by Irish chiefs. They are Roman Catholics who want Northern Ireland to be reunited with the Republic of Ireland, removing the northern counties from the sovereignty of England. The Ulster Unionists remain politically, religiously, and culturally loyal to England, yet feel that Northern Ireland is their homeland. Nationalists believe that the land is theirs, and their loyalty is to their compatriots in the Free State of Southern Ireland.

Location and Geography. Northern Ireland is the smallest country in the United Kingdom, situated on the second largest island of the British Isles. It occupies one-sixth of the island it shares with the independent Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is composed of six of the twenty-nine counties of Ireland, covering about 5,452 square miles (14,120 square kilometers). It is separated from the Republic of Ireland by a three-hundred-mile-long artificial boundary. Northern Ireland makes up the northwestern corner of the island; the entire island is bordered on the west by the Atlantic Ocean, on the east by the Irish Sea, and on the south by the Celtic Sea. The waters around Northern Ireland's coast are shallow.

The climate is mild as a result of Atlantic Ocean breezes and the Gulf Stream, with comfortable summers and temperate winters. Snow is uncommon, and temperatures dip below freezing only a few times a year. However, rainfall is heavy. Low mountains with steep cliffs dropping off to the sea and fertile lowlands are the principal topographic features. The two major mountain ranges are the Sperrin Mountains and the Mourne Mountains. Most of the farmable land, in the middle of the country, is used as grazing pastures for livestock. Lough Neagh, in central Northern Ireland, is the largest lake in the British Isles.

Until seven thousand years ago, Ireland was linked to Europe by a land bridge, but the ocean eroded that bridge and separated Ireland from the continent. Scotland lies just thirteen miles east of the island across the English Channel.

The Upper Bann River begins in the Mourne Mountains and flows northwest for twenty-five miles before entering Lough Neagh. The Erne River, which is seventy-two miles long, starts in the Republic of Ireland and flows northward into Northern Ireland. The Foyle River, marking the northwestern boundary with the Republic of Ireland, passes through Londonderry and empties into the Atlantic Ocean, becoming a bay called Lough Foyle.

Soggy areas called peat bogs have developed in parts of the country. The bogs contain layers of vegetation that have partly decayed in the moist earth. As the layers build up, they form a thick crust of turf that is called peat. This turf, originally cut by hand, is now cut by machine. The resulting briquettes are burned for fuel and remain the major source of heat and electricity in rural areas.

Demography. In 1998, the Annual report of the Registrar General for Northern Ireland reported the population of Northern Ireland to be 1,668,000. The population is most dense in the east. In the 1980s, the population was described as being 70 percent Protestant and 30 percent Catholic, but 60 percent Protestant and 40 percent Catholic may be more accurate. The population breakdown is difficult to ascertain because many residents are reluctant to indicate their religion.

Catholic families have a higher birthrate because of their religious beliefs and their desire to surpass the population of the Unionists. Stability in the population has resulted from the fact that many Catholics were forced to go to London to escape unemployment.

Linguistic Affiliation. English is spoken throughout the country, and the native language of Gaelic, or Gaeltacht, is disappearing. Many Gaelic speakers died in the Great Famine of the 1840s, and Gaelic was replaced by English, which was needed to achieve social mobility. Gaelic still carries a stigma as the language of the poor.

Gaelic is a Celtic language that probably was introduced by Celts in the last few centuries b.c.e. Similar to Scottish Gaelic, it shares common structures with Welsh and Breton. It is an idiomatic language with a complex grammatical system that is considered rich in terms of warmth and expressiveness. Irish is required at some schools but is taught with an emphasis on grammar rather than conversation. The Gaelic League, formed in 1893, is a revivalist organization, that attempts to propagate the Irish language and culture. In the 1920s, the Gaelic League attempted to deanglicize the country by gaelicizing the schools. It wanted to require that all teachers at teacher training colleges have a background and proficiency in Irish. However, the league realized that Gaelic would languish if it was not also used in the home environment.

Symbolism. The Union Jack flag and the British crown are associated with the Unionists both by their Protestant supporters and by their Catholic opponents. Members of the Orange Order have a picture of the crown on the huge drums that are used in the parades in which Orangemen celebrate the victory of William of Orange over James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Another image associated with the rivalry between Loyalists and Nationalists is the Ulster emblem of a right hand severed at the wrist from which no blood should flow.

Northern Ireland is recognizable by its lush green countryside and stout mountains leading down to a steep and craggy shoreline. The flag of the Free State of Ireland, which has equal vertical bands of green, white, and orange is a symbol of the Irish nation.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. Prior to 1920 the island of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 founded the Irish Free State and allowed six Ulster counties to remain part of the United Kingdom, becoming Northern Ireland. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) opposed the establishment of the Irish Free State. In 1925, an agreement among the Irish Free State, Northern Ireland, and Great Britain partitioned Ireland and defined the borders. Catholic residents of Ulster did not want to see Ireland divided, but Protestant business leaders wished to remain linked to England. In 1936, the Irish Free State proclaimed its complete independence, and in 1949 it renamed itself the Republic of Ireland. Since 1974, the United Kingdom has ruled Northern Ireland directly.

National Identity. The Northern Irish see themselves as distinct from the English but connected to their compatriots in the Republic of Ireland. The Northern Irish see the British of Northern Ireland as interlopers and oppressors.

Ethnic Relations. Violent antagonism between Catholics and Protestants developed in the nineteenth century and resulted from history and religion. The influx of settlers from England and Scotland was not welcomed by the native Irish, since the newcomers were awarded the best parcels of land. At first, the minority Ulster Protestants could not dominate the Catholic majority, but after the victory of the Protestants supporting William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne, they prevailed.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Particularly in Belfast, most decisions involving public planning are made to preserve public security in the midst of "the Troubles." Many of the busiest streets in that city have control zones where only pedestrians can travel. Automobiles are not allowed in those zones to reduce the risk of car bombings. Cars that are parked in commercial parking lots are given a quick inspection for potential bombs. The boundaries that separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods are enforced by the police.

Graffiti and wall murals appear throughout urban areas, depicting the sentiments of Unionists and Nationalists. In the case of the Nationalists, IRA propaganda and images of men with guns tell supporters to "fight back" and state that "we will meet force with force." Catholic children learn from graffiti the strong views and potential for violence held by the Nationalists.

In a sign welcoming travelers to the County of Londonderry, Nationalists have expressed their anti-British feelings by scratching out the word "London" and identifying the county as Derry, as it is known among Catholics. At Free Derry Corner, two large murals commemorate the events of Bloody Sunday, in which thirteen people were killed and another fourteen were injured, after British soldiers opened fire during an illegal demonstration in 1972.

The Ulster Architectural Heritage Society is an organization that educates the public and lobbies for historic buildings in nine counties in Northern Ireland.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. The diet is rather simple. Porridge or oatmeal often is eaten at breakfast. At midmorning, one stops for a cup of tea or coffee with cookies or biscuits. Most people eat the main meal at midday. This meal generally is meat-based, featuring beef, chicken, pork, or lamb. Fish and chips are eaten for a quick meal, and a rich soup with plenty of bread can be bought in taverns at lunchtime. Potatoes are a staple, but onions, cabbage, peas, and carrots are eaten just as frequently. Irish stew combines the chief elements of the cuisine with mutton, potatoes, and onions.

Bakeries carry a variety of breads, with brown bread and white soda bread served most often with meals. White sliced bread is called pan in Irish. Belfast's soda bread enjoys an excellent reputation; made of flour and buttermilk it is found throughout the country. In the evening, families eat a simple meal of leftovers or eggs and toast.

A drink generally means beer, either lager or stout. Guinness, brewed in Dublin, is the black beer most often drunk. Whiskey also is served in pubs, and coffee is also available.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Food customs of the Northern Irish are not really different from the practices of the Irish in the Republic of Ireland. Christmas supper includes meat such as chicken and ham followed by plum pudding. Being a strongly Catholic country, the Friday night prohibition of meat is observed by Catholics. Since fish is permitted, the Friday evening meal generally features trout or salmon.

Basic Economy. The economy of Northern Ireland is based on agriculture and manufacturing. The agriculture sector benefits from rich farming soil. Agriculture contributes to manufacturing through processing of livestock and dairy products. Northern Ireland's principle industries are textiles, shipbuilding, and engineering.

Unequal resources and unequal opportunities resulting from colonization have created conflict. The ethnic and religious strife is really a matter of an uneven distribution of economic resources and opportunities.

Land Tenure and Property. The current distribution of land between Catholics and Protestants can be traced back to the settlement patterns of the seventeenth century. The eastern counties of Antrum and Down were settled by the Scottish because of their proximity to Scotland. The settlers who later came from the north of England got land in Monaghan. In the 1600s, the incoming Protestants took the best land for farming, leaving the Catholics with less fertile and more mountainous parcels. As a result, a majority of Protestants established roots in Antrum and Down as well as Armagh and Londonderry.

Commercial Activities. The Industrial Revolution occurred in Belfast during the twentieth century and made the country the world's major linen center and the home of two flourishing shipyards. The success of shipbuilding spawned related industries in engineering and rope making.

Major Industries. Northern Ireland, Belfast in particular, has always been an industrial center. Early in the twentieth century, the major industries were shipbuilding and rope making. The success of Belfast's industries kept it inextricably bound to Great Britain, from which it imported its raw materials. The owners and managers of most industries were Protestants, reinforcing the paternalistic relationship to England.

Trade. As much as 80 percent of external trade is with England. Textiles, in particular linen, are the major export. Grain also is exported; during the Great Famine, grain and foodstuffs were exported to England, with little done to relieve the starving Irish people.

Division of Labor. Catholics generally are excluded from skilled and semiskilled jobs in shipyards and linen mills. They historically were restricted to menial jobs on the docks, earning lower wages than the Protestants who worked in skilled jobs and management positions. Ulster Unionists tend to own businesses. Many Catholic Republicans are unemployed.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. The class structure renders Protestants superior in that they dominate the professional and business classes, tending to own the majority of businesses and large farms. Catholics tend to be unskilled workers or work small farms. Catholics tend to be poorer than Protestants as a result of economic inequality that often is attributed to ethnic and religious roots. The general enmity between the two groups is exacerbated by long standing prejudices. Protestants generally believe that Catholics are lazy and irresponsible. Social separation contributes to these perceptions. Protestant and Catholic families live in separate enclaves and worship separately, and their children study in segregated schools.

Irish Catholics may tend to drink, whereas Protestants are viewed as more British and puritanical. On Sundays, Catholics often engage in leisure or recreation activities after mass, while Protestants scorn Sunday leisure activities, often choosing not to garden in deference to the sabbath.

Symbols of Social Stratification. Protestants tend to comport themselves as British, members of the United Kingdom. In regard to owning land and businesses, Protestants constitute the economic, social, and political elite. Their accent and manners are in keeping with those of Great Britain. Catholics, who tend to be poorer and have larger families, speak Gaelic, although not fluently. Most Protestants belong to the Orange Order, which is dedicated to maintaining the Protestant religion and Protestant social superiority.

Political Life

Government. Northern Ireland is symbolically headed by the British monarch but it is governed by an elected parliament. The Ireland Act of 1920 established a parliament that was suspended in 1972 because of the ethnic violence. The makeup of the parliament is intended to include fifty-two delegates in the Northern Ireland House of Commons who serve five-year terms. The House selects twenty-four Senate members who serve eight-year terms. House members choose the prime minister from the political party that holds the most seats.

The judicial system is similar to that of England, in which the courts base decisions on parliamentary legislation and common law. A magistrate hears minor cases, and more serious cases are heard by the Crown Court, which is made up of a judge and jury. Any appeals go before a nine-judge court in the British House of Lords.

There is no written constitution. The three viable political options are the continuance as part of the United Kingdom, association with the Republic of Ireland, and independence. The country has the right to self-determination under the Northern Ireland Constitution Act of 1973, but unless there is a majority vote for independence or a formal alliance with Ireland, it will remain part of the United Kingdom.

Leadership and Political Officials. Each of the twenty-six districts has an elected council. Belfast and Londonderry have their own councils, which focuses on education, public works, local planning and public health. Protestants tend to hold most elected positions, and this has led to an uneven distribution of resources.

In the 1830s, the Catholic Emancipation Act allowed Catholics to seek election to the British legislature. However, Protestant leaders in Northern Ireland gerrymandered the voting districts so that the Catholics were always a minority in every district.

Social Problems and Control. Most violence results from the civil unrest between Catholics and Protestants. Bombings and individual attacks generally are motivated by the politically charged atmosphere and segregation. Nonpolitical crimes are generally based on socioeconomic inequity. Burglary and theft accounted for nearly three-quarters of all recorded crime in Northern Ireland in 1995. Between 1990 and 1995, the number of arrests for drug-related offenses more than tripled.

Military Activity. The presence of British police and military personnel is pervasive. There are police checkpoints, and citizens must carry documents routinely. The Ulster Volunteer Force is a Unionist military organization that is highly secretive and has been labeled a terrorist group since it is openly anti-Catholic. The Ulster Defense Association was a legal organization until 1991. The Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British Army are responsible for keeping the peace; the Royal Ulster Constabulary employs a special branch of army intelligence to anticipate and prevent all terrorist attacks.

The Irish National Liberation Army is composed of older, more experienced members. The Provisional Irish Republican Army is a descendant of the original IRA. In this secretive group, which is a military wing of the IRA, each member knows only the names of his immediate colleagues. The IRA has detonated bombs under cars, striking at the moment a police patrol passes. The IRA has killed twenty to thirty soldiers and police officers per year since the 1980s.

Young Nationalists are recruited for paramilitary service. First they join Fionna Eireann as a scout or recruit. To prove themselves, young initiates must participate in the beating or kneecapping of a Protestant.

The military carries out regular security patrols in Unionist and Loyalist areas on foot or in police or army vehicles. The 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act was passed to prevent the IRA from extending its attacks to Great Britain; it authorizes detention for up to seven days for anyone seemingly engaged in terrorism in Northern Ireland, Great Britain, or the Republic of Ireland.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

Social insurance benefits exist for orphans, widows, pensioners, and persons on disability or maternity leave. The state, the employer, and the employee all contribute to the fund that provides these benefits. Health services and medicines are free to all persons with long-term illnesses. Beyond that, there are two kinds of entitlements: free health services for those who have a low income and a lower level of services for people with higher incomes.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

Most nongovernmental organizations operating in the country, including the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Northern Ireland Assembly, are concerned with human rights and human rights violations resulting from violent attacks by the IRA and the British Army. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which was established by the Northern Ireland Act of 1988, has the duty and power to ensure the human rights of all residents and to counter human rights violations.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. The position of women in the economic structure shifted during the period of direct rule, with more women entering the workforce between 1952 and 1995 as the number of jobs expanded. Typically, women work in low-paid, part-time jobs in the service sector, and even though their participation in the workforce has increased, it has remained below that of men.

The most dramatic increase in women's employment was that of married women after a constitutional revision. In 1937, the constitution reflected religious bias by stating that a working woman who married had to resign from her job. It was not until 1977 that an Employment Equality Act made that practice illegal.

The Relative Status of Men and Women. Women have become increasingly involved in the peace movement. The Northern Ireland Peace Movement, which began in 1976, allied Protestant and Catholic women who marched together through both Loyalist and Republican parts of Belfast. Two of the founders, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for their efforts to unite Catholics and Protestants to halt the violence.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Premarital chastity is valued by both religions, especially in rural areas. Young people are expected to abstain from sex until after they are married in a religious ceremony in a church. Marriages often are brokered by a matchmaker since the economic aspects of marriage require experienced calculation. In the 1920s, postfamine marriages were infrequent, with many young people abstaining from marriage; there were more single than married people in the age range of twenty-five to thirty. Farmers who had small plots of land wanted to keep it and they discouraged early marriages of their children to avoid the need to subdivide the land.

In the 1970s, marriage rates increased, but Ireland was joining the West in embracing the nuclear family model. While more marriages occurred, married couples were having smaller families. By 1977, the birthrate had declined by one-third. This trend toward nuclear families applied to both Catholics and Protestants, although Catholics still had larger families. Even after marriage, contraception, which is forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church, is not legally obtainable in much of the country.

Since the 1600s, when the Scots and English arrived, very little intermarriage between those ethnic groups and the original Irish inhabitants has occurred. However, it is said that as many as one-fifth of marriages in Belfast today are between a Catholic and a Protestant; this figure may be exaggerated.

Domestic Unit. Families tend to live together in nuclear units in government housing projects that reinforce the separation of Catholics and Protestants. Catholics get smaller, older houses, while Protestant government officials award new or upgraded dwellings to other Protestants. Catholics tend to have larger families, making their homes more crowded. The government once talked about altering family assistance to favor smaller families but decided that move would lead to charges of religious discrimination from Catholics.

Inheritance. Inheritance customs changed after the 1920s. After the famine, farmers felt betrayed by the land, and the generations of birthright to a family's land stopped. Farmers who had small plots wanted to hold on to what they had and were reluctant to subdivide their parcels to hand down to their sons.

Generally the father would give his land to one son, not necessarily the oldest. Only then could that son take a bride. Often this did not take place until the father reached the age of seventy, at which time an old age pension allowed him to bequeath his land. In the meantime, the grown children who were not going to inherit land had no place in the home and usually emigrated or looked for work as craftsmen in a neighboring town.

Parents enjoy a patriarchal status and the father claims the best chair near the fire. Historically, when parents retired and passed their land to a son, they stopped sleeping in the kitchen and moved to a smaller room in the back of the house, where they would display heirlooms and religious pictures that previously were kept in the main hearth area.

Kin Groups. Kinship is reinforced by religion, class, and socioeconomic status. Catholics feel a kinship among themselves as the minority as well as links to their coreligionists in the Republic of Ireland. Protestants associate with their British heritage and identify with their compatriots in Great Britain in terms of religion, socioeconomic status, and class. Nuclear families are the main kin group, with relatives involved as kin in the extended family. Children generally adopt the father's surname. The first name is generally a Christian name, usually the name of a saint.


Infant Care. Infant mortality as measured in the 1926 Dublin census was high. In the 1990s the infant mortality rate fell to a level lower than that in Europe as a whole.

Child Rearing and Education. The mother raises younger children. However, when a boy makes his first communion, generally at age seven, his father rears him alongside his older brothers. Education is compulsory from ages six to fifteen. Schools are segregated, with Catholics attending parochial schools and Protestants attending public schools.

Higher Education. Queen's University in Belfast, which was founded in 1845 and originally was called Queen's College, is the most prestigious university. About eight thousand students study there, mostly in the sciences. The Union Theological College was founded in 1853. In 1968, the New University of Ulster opened in Colraine; two thousand students are enrolled. Vocational schools include the Belfast College of Technology, Ulster Polytechnic in Newtownabbey, and the Agricultural College. Assembly College, founded in 1853, is a Presbyterian training school.


Rules of etiquette are situational and are affected by status and class. While political conversations in pubs may be intense, political discussions occur only among friends and people with similar views. People are reluctant to discuss their political, religious, social, and economic views with outsiders.


Religious Beliefs. For Catholics, Good Friday, Easter, and Christmas are the most holy days and are observed by attending church services and spending time with the family. While Catholic-Protestant conflict has worsened in the last century, the religious and political history between the two groups goes back centuries. In 1534, King Henry VIII of England established himself the leader of a new church of Protestantism that he tried to impose in Ireland. He offered to increase the landholdings of Irish nobles who would recognize the new church. However, few of the Irish, and none in Ulster, accepted the offer. In 1541, Henry declared himself king of Ireland and outlawed monasteries. In 1547, Edward VI, his son and successor, declared Protestantism the official religion of Ireland and dispatched troops to enforce the new law. Those troops arrested Irish nobles and seized the property of those who refused to convert. Edward gave the confiscated land to the English Protestants who were settling there. Elizabeth I continued that policy and enforced Protestantism. In 1560, she was named head of the Irish Church and insisted that English, not Gaelic, be used in religious services.

Religious Practitioners. The Catholic clergy provide a link between God and the Catholic congregants. This represents a significant difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Catholic clergy participate in the civil rights movement in an attempt to equalize the volatile conflict. However, Protestants complain that the Catholic clergy exacerbate the situation by interfering with politics when they support Nationalist candidates and participate in demonstrations against the British Army.

Rituals and Holy Places. The headquarters of the Catholic and Protestant churches are located in Armagh. Each religion has a cathedral named for Saint Patrick, a fifth century missionary who brought Christianity to the Celts of the island.

Death and the Afterlife. Protestants believe that the Catholic Church teaches that salvation is found only in their religion, which means that the Protestants are heretics damned to eternal damnation. Catholics killed in "the Troubles" are venerated as martyrs.

Medicine and Health Care

A national health care program was started in the 1950s. The Department of Health and Social Services administers the health care system by using tax revenues. Many services are free, such as hospitalization and maternity coverage.

Secular Celebrations

Saint Patrick's Day is the most widely celebrated secular holiday and is characterized by vigorous parades. New Year's Day is celebrated on 1 January. The controversial annual pride parade of the Orange Order is held on Orange Day on 12 July to celebrate and commemorate the victory of Prince William of Orange over King James II. This Protestant organization had about ninety thousand members in the 1990s. The public parade and celebration evoke tension in Belfast, often provoking Nationalists to violence.

The Arts and Humanities

Support for the Arts. Since the partition of Ireland is artificial, there is no real distinction between the two cultures.

Established in 1962, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland is the prime distributor of public support for the arts. Its mission is to develop and improve the knowledge, appreciation, and practice of the arts; to increase public access to and participation in the arts; and to encourage and assist artists.

Literature. Most Irish literature has been written by authors in and around Dublin. However, Northern Ireland produced the Nobel Prize-winning poet, Seamus Heaney, who has published many collections of poems. His career parallels the violent political struggles of his homeland, but he is fascinated primarily by the earth and the history embedded there. His verse incorporates Gaelic expressions as he explores the themes of nature, love, and mythology. His poems use images of death and dying, and he has written elegiac poems to friends and family members lost to "the Troubles." Northern Ireland is also the birthplace of C. Day Lewis, who wrote novels and verse and taught and translated classical literature. Lewis was named poet laureate of the United Kingdom in 1970.

Graphic Arts. Celtic designs can be seen in artistic and everyday images. The Celtic influence appears in the lettering on shop signs, letterheads, jewelry, and tombstones.

Performance Arts. Irish music incorporates fiddles, bagpipes, drums, flutes, and harps. Folk music is performed in pubs and parades. The Ulster National Orchestra in Belfast and the Philharmonic Society are the leading classical musical groups. Traditional Irish music has grown very popular outside the country in the last decade.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

Queen's University has a strong reputation in the sciences. Many of the eight thousand members of the student body receive undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in agriculture, food science, and horticulture. The university has research programs in livestock production and crop and grass production as well as food quality and processing to improve the competitiveness of the beef, sheep, and pig livestock sectors.


Barritt, Denis P., and Charles F. Carter. The Northern Ireland Problems: A Study in Group Relations, 2nd ed., 1972.

Boyle, Kevin, and Tom Hadden. Northern Ireland: The Choice, 1994.

Brown, Terence. Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 1922 to the Present, 1985.

Buckland, Patrick. A History of Northern Ireland, 1981.

Callaghan, James. A House Divided: The Dilemma of Northern Ireland, 1973.

Coogan, Tim Pat. The Troubles: Ireland's Ordeal 19661996 and the Search for Peace, 1997.

Darby, John, ed. Northern Ireland: The Background to the Conflict, 1983.

Finnegan, Richard B. Ireland: The Challenge of Conflict and Change, 1983.

Harkness, David. Ireland in the Twentieth Century: Divided Island, 1996.

Hennessey, Thomas. A History of Northern Ireland 19201996, 1997.

Hughes, Michael. Ireland Divided: The Roots of the Modern Irish Problem, 1994.

Mullan, Don. Bloody Sunday: Massacre in Northern Ireland, 1997.

Murphy, John A. Ireland in the Twentieth Century, 1975.

Murray, John, Sean Sheehan, and Tony Wheeler. Ireland: A Travel Survival Kit, 1994.

Robertson, Ian. Blue Guide: Ireland, 1992.

Ruane, Joseph, and Jennifer Todd. The Dynamics of Conflict in Northern Ireland: Power, Conflict and Emancipation, 1996.

See, Katherine O'Sullivan. First World Nationalisms: Class and Ethnic Politics in Northern Ireland and Quebec, 1986.

Shivers, Lynne, and David Bowman. More Than the Troubles: A Common Sense View of the Northern Ireland Conflict, 1984.

Taylor, Peter. Loyalists: War and Peace in Northern Ireland, 1999.

S. B. Downey

See Also: United Kingdom

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Northern Ireland." Countries and Their Cultures. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Northern Ireland." Countries and Their Cultures. . (December 10, 2017).

"Northern Ireland." Countries and Their Cultures. . Retrieved December 10, 2017 from

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland: see Ireland, Northern.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Northern Ireland." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Northern Ireland." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 10, 2017).

"Northern Ireland." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 10, 2017 from

Northern Ireland

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Northern Ireland." World Encyclopedia. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Northern Ireland." World Encyclopedia. . (December 10, 2017).

"Northern Ireland." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 10, 2017 from