Northern Ireland

Status: Part of United Kingdom

First Minister: (suspended Oct. 14, 2002)

Land area: 5,452 sq mi (14,121 sq km)

Population (1998 est.): 1,688,600

Capital and largest city (2003 est.): Belfast, 484,800 (metro. area), 246,200 (city proper)

Monetary unit: British pound sterling (£)

Language: English

Religions: Presbyterian, Church of Ireland, Roman Catholic, Methodist.

Major sources and definitions

Geography | Government | History


Northern Ireland is composed of 26 districts, derived from the boroughs of Belfast and Londonderry and the counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, and Tyrone. Together they are commonly called Ulster, though the territory does not include the entire ancient province of Ulster. It is slightly larger than Connecticut.


Northern Ireland was an integral part of the United Kingdom, but under the terms of the Government of Ireland Act in 1920, it had a semiautonomous government. In 1972, however, after three years of sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics that resulted in more than 400 dead and thousands injured, Britain suspended the Ulster parliament. The Ulster counties were governed directly from London after an attempt to return certain powers to an elected assembly in Belfast.

As a result of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, a new coalition government was formed on Dec. 2, 1999, with the British government formally transferring governing power to the Northern Irish parliament. David Trimble, Protestant leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and winner of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize, became first minister. The government has been suspended four times since then; it has remained suspended since Oct. 14, 2002.


Ulster was part of Catholic Ireland until the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) when, after suppressing three Irish rebellions, the Crown confiscated lands in Ireland and settled the Scots Presbyterians in Ulster. Another rebellion in 1641–1651, brutally crushed by Oliver Cromwell, resulted in the settlement of Anglican Englishmen in Ulster. Subsequent political policy favoring Protestants and disadvantaging Catholics encouraged further Protestant settlement in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland did not separate from the South until William Gladstone presented, in 1886, his proposal for home rule in Ireland. The Protestants in the North feared domination by the Catholic majority. Industry, moreover, was concentrated in the North and dependent on the British market. When World War I began, civil war threatened between the regions. Northern Ireland, however, did not become a political entity until the six counties accepted the Home Rule Bill of 1920. This set up a semiautonomous parliament in Belfast and a Crown-appointed governor advised by a cabinet of the prime minister and 8 ministers, as well as a 12-member representation in the House of Commons in London.

Hostilities Between Catholic and Protestant Communities Mount

When the Republic of Ireland gained sovereignty in 1922, relations improved between North and South, although the Irish Republican Army (IRA), outlawed in recent years, continued the struggle to end the partition of Ireland. In 1966–1969, rioting and street fighting between Protestants and Catholics occurred in Londonderry, fomented by extremist nationalist Protestants, who feared the Catholics might attain a local majority, and by Catholics demonstrating for civil rights. These confrontations became known as “the Troubles.”

The religious communities, Catholic and Protestant, became hostile armed camps. British troops were brought in to separate them but themselves became a target of Catholics, particularly by the IRA, which by this time had turned into a full-fledged terrorist movement. The goal of the IRA was to eject the British and unify Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic to the south. The Protestants remained tenaciously loyal to the United Kingdom, and various Protestant terrorist organizations pursued the Unionist cause through violence. Various attempts at representational government and power-sharing foundered during the 1970s, and both sides were further polarized. Direct rule from London and the presence of British troops failed to stop the violence.

Steps Toward Peace

In Oct. 1977, the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, founders of the Community of Peace People, a nonsectarian organization dedicated to creating peace in Northern Ireland. Intermittent violence continued, however, and on Aug. 27, 1979, an IRA bomb killed Lord Mountbatten as he was sailing off southern Ireland. This incident heightened tensions. Catholic protests over the death of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in 1981 fueled more violence. Riots, sniper fire, and terrorist attacks killed more than 3,200 people between 1969 and 1998. Among the attempts at reconciliation undertaken during the 1980s was the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985), which, to the dismay of Unionists, marked the first time the Republic of Ireland had been given an official consultative role in the affairs of the province.

In 1997, Northern Ireland made a significant step in the direction of stemming sectarian strife. The first formal peace talks began on Oct. 6 with representatives of eight major Northern Irish political parties participating, a feat that in itself required three years of negotiations. Two smaller Protestant parties, including extremist Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, boycotted the talks. For the first time, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, won two seats in the British parliament, which went to Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and his second-in-command, Martin McGuinness. Although the election strengthened the IRA's political legitimacy, it was the IRA's resumption of the 17-month cease-fire, which had collapsed in Feb. 1996, that gained them a place at the negotiating table.

A landmark settlement, the Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998, came after 19 months of intensive negotiations. The accord called for Protestants to share political power with the minority Catholics, and it gave the Republic of Ireland a voice in Northern Irish affairs. In turn, Catholics were to suspend the goal of a united Ireland—a territorial claim that was the raison d'être of the IRA and was written into the Irish Republic's constitution—unless the largely Protestant North voted in favor of such an arrangement, an unlikely occurrence.

The resounding commitment to the settlement was demonstrated in a dual referendum on May 22, 1998: the North approved the accord by a vote of 71% to 29%, and in the Irish Republic 94% favored it. In October, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to John Hume and David Trimble, leaders of the largest Catholic and Protestant political parties, an incentive for all sides to ensure that this time the peace would last.

A New Coalition Government

In Dec. 1998 the rival Northern Ireland politicians agreed on the organization and contents of the new coalition government, but in June 1999, the peace process again hit an impasse when the IRA refused to disarm prior to the Assembly of Northern Ireland's new provincial cabinet. Sinn Fein insisted that the IRA would only begin giving up its illegal weapons after the formation of the new government; Unionists demanded disarmament first. As a result, the Ulster Unionists boycotted the Assembly session that would have nominated the cabinet to run the new coalition government. The nascent Northern Irish government was stillborn in July 1999.

Subsequent talks on the agreement, which would have ended three decades of direct rule from London, seemed to go nowhere. Finally, at the end of November, David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, abandoned the seemingly sacrosanct “no guns, no government” position and took a difficult leap of faith in agreeing to form a government prior to Sinn Fein's disarmament. If the IRA did not begin the destruction of their weapons by Jan. 31, 2000, however, the Ulster Unionists threatened to withdraw from the Northern Irish parliament, shutting down the new government. With the compromise in place, this government was quickly formed, and on Dec. 2, 1999, the British government formally transferred governing power to the Northern Irish parliament. David Trimble became first minister. Two leaders of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, received seats in the 4-party 12-member parliament. But by the deadline, Sinn Fein had made little progress toward disarmament. As a result, the British government suspended parliament on Feb. 12, 2000, and once again imposed direct rule. In July 2001, after issuing one last ultimatum to the IRA to begin destroying its weapons stores, Ulster Unionist leader Trimble resigned his post as first minister.

Following Trimble's departure, the IRA offered another vague and open-ended disarmament plan, only to withdraw it. But on Oct. 23, days before Britain was to suspend the Assembly, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams dramatically announced that the IRA had indeed begun disarming. As a result, Trimble was reelected as first minister.

On April 8, 2002, international weapons inspectors announced that the IRA had put more stockpiled munitions “beyond use,” the euphemistic phrase applied to disarmament in the negotiations. British and Irish leaders hoped that Protestant paramilitary groups would also begin to surrender their weapons. The Council on Foreign Relations has estimated that Protestant paramilitary groups have been responsible for 30% of the civilian deaths in the Northern Irish conflict. The two main Protestant vigilante groups are the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). Strongest during the 1970s, their ranks have since diminished. While Protestant paramilitaries have observed a cease-fire since the IRA declared one, none of these groups have made any moves toward surrendering their weapons as stipulated by the Good Friday Agreement.

Britain Resumes Direct Rule Of Northern Ireland

On Oct. 14, the British government again assumed direct rule of Northern Ireland, after the Unionists threatened to quit the Assembly in protest of suspected spying activity by the IRA. In March and April 2003, negotiations were again under way to reinstate the Northern Ireland Assembly. But Sinn Fein's vague language, weakly pledging that its “strategies and disciplines will not be inconsistent with the Good Friday Agreement,” caused Tony Blair to challenge Sinn Fein once and for all to make a clear, unambiguous pledge to renounce using the paramilitary for political means. According to the New York Times (April 24, 2003), “virtually every newspaper in Britain and Ireland has editorialized in favor of full disarmament, and the Irish government, traditionally sympathetic to Sinn Fein, is almost as adamant about the matter as London is.”

In Nov. 2003 legislative elections, the Ulster Unionists and other moderates lost out to Northern Ireland's extremist parties: Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein. Power sharing between these antithetical parties was out of the question.

A $50 million bank robbery in Dec. 2004 was linked to the IRA, and Sinn Fein's legitimacy as a political organization suffered a severe setback. The brutal murder in Jan. 2005 of Belfast Catholic Robert McCartney by the IRA, and the campaign by his five sisters to hold the IRA accountable, further tarnished the IRA's standing, even in Catholic communities that had once been IRA strongholds.

On July 28, 2005, the IRA announced that it was entering a new era in which it would unequivocally relinquish violence, give up its arms, and pursue its aims exclusively through political means. In late September, the Irish Republican Army made good on its promise to give up all its weapons, and their disarmament was verified by an international mediator. Some Protestant groups, however, continued to doubt the veracity of the IRA's claims. In Feb. 2006, the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), a watchdog agency monitoring Northern Irish paramilitary groups, reported that although the IRA “seems to be moving in the right direction,” dissident republican paramilitaries are still engaged in violence and crime. On May 15, Northern Ireland's political parties were given six months (to Nov. 24) to come up with a power-sharing government or else sovereignty would revert indefinitely to the British government.

An Agreement for a Power-Sharing Government

Shortly after parliamentary elections in March 2007, Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, and Rev. Ian Paisley, the head of the Democratic Unionist Party, met face to face for the first time and hashed out an agreement for a power-sharing government. The historic deal was put into place in May, when Paisley and McGuinness were sworn in as leader and deputy leader, respectively, of the Northern Ireland executive government, thus ending direct rule from London.

On Feb. 5, 2010, with the signing of the Hillsborough Castle Agreement, Gordon Brown of Britain and Brian Cowen, prime ministers of England and Ireland, respectivly, created a breakthrough in the Northern Ireland peace process. According to the terms of the accord, Britain will hand over control of the six counties' police and justice system to Northern Ireland. The shift to local control of the courts, prosecution system, and police has been the most important and contentious of the issues plaguing the tenuous power-sharing government. The final phase of devolution was completed on April 12, when the policing and justice powers of Northern Ireland were transferred from Westminster to the Northern Ireland Assemby and the government created a Department for Justice for Northern Ireland.

In June 2010, Lord Saville, a High Court judge, released the results of his much-anticipated, 12-year investigation into the 1972 killing of 13 protesters by British paratroopers at a Catholic civil-rights demonstration in Londonderry. He determined that none of the victims posed a threat to troops and that the killings were unjustified. David Cameron, the British prime minister, apologised for"Bloody Sunday" on behalf of the government.

Belfast Riots Injure 32 Police Officers

2013 Belfast Riots
2013 Belfast Riots
AP Photo/Peter Morrison

On July 13, 2013, riots broke out due to a blocked march and at least 32 police officers, one lawmaker and eight rioters were wounded. Chief Constable Matt Baggott, Northern Ireland's police commander, blamed the Orange Order brotherhood leaders for the riots. In a statement, Baggott said, "Having called thousands of people to protest, they had no plan and no control."

Every year, the Orange Order brotherhood's annual July 12 march increases tension with the Irish Catholic minority. In recent years, Ardoyne, a Catholic district in northern Belfast has seen violence after the Orange Order brotherhood passed through with their march. Irish republican militants have attacked police after the parade in that area for the last four years. However, in 2013, hundreds of police reinforcements from Britain were deployed. British authorities ordered the Orange Order brotherhood not to march down a road near Ardoyne. The police blocked the road with armored vehicles. The Orange Order responded by having thousands of supporters come to that road in protest. The rioters attacked the vehicles, injuring the police officers in the process.

Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein and currently a member of the Irish Parliament, was arrested, imprisoned, and questioned for four days in May 2014 by police in Northern Ireland about the 1972 Belfast murder of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten who was falsely accused by the IRA of being an informer. His arrest followed the release of audiotapes of IRA members, now dead, connecting Adams to the brutal murder. Adams was released without being charged. He and his supporters claimed the arrest was a politically motivated attempt to tarnish his and Sinn Fein's reputation in lead-up to elections.

The Ulster Unionist Party Leaves Ruling Executive

In August 2015, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) voted unanimously in favor of leaving Northern Ireland's ruling executive. The proposal was made by party leader Mike Nesbitt after police reported that Provisional IRA members had been involved with the murder of ex-IRA member Kevin McGuigan Sr. earlier that month. According to officials, police believed that the IRA still existed and some of its members had killed McGuigan. In a press conference announcing UUP's departure, Nesbitt called the Northern Ireland Executive a "busted flush." He also said that Sinn Fein's refusal to acknowledge the existence of the IRA made it "impossible to do business with them."

The UUP's only executive minister, Danny Kennedy, resigned on Sept. 1, 2015. It was unclear if the Democratic Unionist Party, the nation's largest unionist party, would follow UUP and leave. Meanwhile, in response to McGuigan's murder, the British government appointed an independent panel to investigate and asses the current status of the IRA and other paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland.

See also Encyclopedia: Ireland, Northern.
Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency
See also Chronology of the Northern Irish Conflict.

British Prime Ministers Since 1770 United Kingdom Scotland

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