Northern Ireland

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Northen Ireland
N. Ireland location.png
Flag of Northern Ireland.png
UK Royal Coat of Arms.png
Flag Coat of Arms
Capital Belfast
Government Constitutional Monarchy
Language English (official)
Monarch King Charles III
Area 13,843 sq mi
Population 1,775,000 (2009)
Currency Pound Sterling

Northern Ireland (Irish: Tuaisceart Éireann, Ulster-Scots: Norlin Airlann) is one of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom, which also includes England, Scotland and Wales. Geographically, Northern Ireland occupies the northern portion of the island of Ireland, with the Republic of Ireland occupying the remainder of the island. The capital of Northern Ireland is Belfast.

Northern Ireland prohibited homosexual "marriage" long after England, Scotland, Wales, and the Republic of Ireland imposed it throughout the rest of the British Isles. However, in 2019, the UK parliament forced Northern Ireland to accept it in addition to abortion.[1]


Early Years

Northern Ireland was created by the Government of Ireland Act 1920 and its existence effectively confirmed by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922, which formally concluded the Irish War of Independence. The country comprises six out of the nine counties in the province of Ulster - the six which contained majority Protestant (or balanced) populations in 1920. The three counties of Ulster with clear Catholic majorities became part of the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland was governed from Parliament Buildings at Stormont in Belfast; Northern Ireland also elected Members of Parliament to serve in the British Parliament in London.

The Craigavon era (1921-1940)

While Edward Carson had led the Unionist movement throughout Ireland, his right-hand man, Sir James Craig was more than able to take his place as leader of the Unionist movement in Northern Ireland. Craig acted as a broker between the Ulster Unionists and London in working out key details of the Government of Ireland Act of 1920. Craig helped reorganize the UVF as a separate unit to defend Northern Ireland against the IRA; this led to the formation of the Ulster Special Constabulary in November 1920. In 1921 there were pitched battles with IRA insurgents supported by Collins in Dublin. In January 1921 the new government of Northern Ireland began operations with Craig as Prime Minister.[2] Craig was helped by a weak Nationalist opposition - the Republicans and their more moderate Nationalist colleagues had been divided on how to deal with the new entity, as they wanted reunion with the South and not union with the UK. By contrast the Unionists were united and won repeated large majorities in the parliament (winning forty, compared to twelve seats combined for Nationalist and Republican candidates). Craig saw his priorities as establishing the new state on firm foundations; defending it against its enemies, within (who were loyal to Dublin) and without (the Irish Free State); preventing his over-zealous supporters from taking the law into their own hands (which might destabilize the state and bring intervention from London); and keeping a watchful eye on London, where Lloyd George by the spring of 1921 was anxious to reach a compromise with Sinn Féin.

The Stormont parliament gerrymandered electoral districts to minimise Catholic representation. In 1929, the Unionists abolished the system of proportional representation, set up by the British Parliament and used the first past the post system used in Britain. The new system hit the smaller parties the hardest, with Labour and Independent Unionists losing four seats in the election.[3] When Eamon de Valera proclaimed Ireland was "a Catholic nation," Craig responded in 1934, that he stood for "a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state."[4] In 1937 Éire approved a new constitution that claimed sovereignty over the entire island.[5] With Éire claiming the entire island was rightfully theirs, Unionists were convinced that the Ulster Catholics were not loyal to King and country, and could not be trusted with responsibilities. Those Catholics who were elected to Stormont usually refused to take an oath of allegiance to the nation. Catholic protests at systematic discrimination in voting, housing and public resources formed the core of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The historian of the Catholics asks, "how 'disloyal' were Catholics after partition?" and notes that Catholics who visibly supported the government were ostracized by other Catholics. She concludes, "It is certainly true that not until the 1960s were Catholics prepared to accept the legitimacy of the Northern Ireland state. But neither did they actively try to subvert it.... The bulk of northern Catholics remained, as they had always been, conservative, clerically-dominated, but utterly constitutional nationalists."[6]

James Craig served as Prime Minister for an unbroken period of nineteen years, making this period popularly known as the 'Craigavon era', as he later became 'Lord Craigavon'.

World War II

The Great Depression was hard on the economy, with unemployment reaching 30%. In a total population of 1,280,000 (in 1937), regional unemployment was 72,000 in late 1940; it plunged to 19,000 (or 5%) by spring 1943. Full employment brought prosperity to all, and agriculture was mobilized for the war effort as well. In 1939 British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's proposed military conscription in Northern Ireland; he was blocked by a common front of the government in Dublin, northern nationalists, and the Catholic bishops - as well as by the apathy of the Unionist rank-and-file. By 1941, to reinforce ties with Westminster, to ease unemployment, and to conceal the low level of loyalist enlistments the Stormont government again requested conscription. Winston Churchill rejected the drafting of Irishmen, due to adamant opposition from Dublin and objections from the United States. However, volunteering for military service was enthusiastic among the Protestants.[7]

Northern Ireland was a vital strategic area of control for Britain during the war; its ports compensating for the loss of Ireland's ports under the 1938 revised treaty. Americans soldiers made a major economic impact and social. German air raids in April and May, 1941, killed 1,110 people with over 2,000 injured; over 50,000 houses were hit damaged and 100,000 people made homeless.

Belfast, a vital industrial city, played a major role in the war providing ships, weapons, ammunition, army clothes, parachutes and a host of other equipment to the war effort. While Unionists in Northern Ireland were deeply and personally involved in the war effort, the Catholic communities were luke-warm at best.[8]

Politics was in turmoil during the war. Craig's death (in November 1940) led to the unfortunate choice of John Andrews (1871-1956), the minister of finance; he was indecisive and refused to purge the old ministerial "gang." The Andrews government collapsed in 1943 under mounting criticism that it was incompetent. The lack of preparation for the German air raids of April–May 1941 alarmed everyone; other grievances rose from its mishandling of the conscription question, its temporary suspension of Belfast corporation, the upsurge in labour strikes, and the inadequacy of its post-war planning. The aristocrat Basil Brooke became prime minister, serving 1943-1963.


After the war the departure of Éire from the Commonwealth in 1949 brought constitutional assurance that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK as long as a majority there so wished. The new Labour government in London worked well with the conservative Unionists in Belfast, for the Unionist Party welcomed the increased spending on welfare (which helped further differentiate it from Éire). Renewed economic growth helped ensure that the 1950s and early 1960s were Northern Ireland's most harmonious and promising years; its post-war experience contrasted starkly with the relative stagnation and isolation of the south. Unionist confidence led to the willingness of some party members to consider reform, as the political system had long been notoriously corrupt and inefficient. Meanwhile, the voting behaviour of the Catholic minority, its increasing political activism, and the collapse of the IRA campaign of 1956–62 all suggested that Catholics were becoming more reconciled to permanent partition, but they were still angry at the restricted local government franchise, gerrymandering, religious discrimination by government and business, and the inadequacy of state funding for Catholic schools.[9]

Brooke's refusal to initiate fundamental reform was due in large part to his concern for Unionist unity. Regarding the Catholics, his strategy was based on the hope that welfare programs and sustained prosperity would eventually dissolve their nationalist aspirations. Brooke rejected those Liberal Unionists who sought to recruit Catholics into the Unionist Party. He retired in 1963. Catholics always criticized anti-Catholic policies and resented James Craig's call for "a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people."[10]

Civil Rights Movement

Violently opposed to the existence of Northern Ireland was the terrorist group the Irish Republican Army, or IRA. The IRA was originally formed to fight the British during the War of Independence. Many IRA members refused to accept the Anglo-Irish treaty's partition of the island into two separate countries, leading to the bloody Irish Civil War of 1922-23, in which IRA was decisively defeated. The new nation of Ireland officially claimed the whole island but unofficially recognized the existence of the north and did nothing to upset the status quo. However, the anti-treaty IRA forces continued to refer to themselves as the IRA after the civil war concluded, and to consider themselves the legitimate government of Ireland.

During the late 1960s, partially inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States, Catholics in Northern Ireland began to protest against perceived discrimination by the government. Protests were initially led by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, or NICRA, which was founded in January 1967. NICRA's demands included repeal of the Special Powers Act, the end of the paramilitary B Specials police force, an end to the gerrymandering in local elections, and an end to discrimination in terms of government housing and government employment.

Protests typically took the form of marches or other demonstrations. One of the most important protests took place on January 1, 1969, when a group from the student People's Democracy organisation organized a march from Belfast to Londonderry, intended to imitate Martin Luther King, Jr.'s marches from Selma to Montgomery. The march was repeatedly attacked by unionists (People wanting to retain the 'Union' of Northern Ireland with Great Britain), including off-duty policemen. The most intense violence occurred at Burntollet Bridge, where the marchers were attacked by 200 unionists while police did little to intervene.

The Troubles: 1969-1998

"The Troubles" refers to a 30-year period of terrorism and civil unrest. The Troubles are generally considered to have begun with civil rights movement and the violent unionist response. Northern Ireland prime minister Terrence O'Neill at first responded favorably to the demands of the protestors, but this attitude was decried by other unionists, including Ian Paisley. Many unionists believed that NICRA was controlled by the IRA. Following the violence at Burntollet Bridge, nationalists in the city of Derry began to erect barricades to protect themselves. This led to the Battle of the Bogside between nationalists and police prior to a unionist march that was scheduled to pass the nationalist Bogside area of the city. The Battle of the Bogside lasted from August 12 to 14, 1969 before British troops were called to resolve the situation. In the meantime, fierce rioting broke out in other parts of the country, including Belfast, Newry, and Strabane. In total, 7 people were killed and 750 injured during the unrest in August 1969, and 1,500 Catholic families and 500 Protestant families were forced from their homes. The Northern Ireland government then requested the presence of British troops throughout the country to keep order.

The violence of the Troubles peaked during the early 1970s, spurred by an influx of recruits to various terrorist organisations, including the republican IRA and the loyalist Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force. A number of events combined to widen the divide between the nationalist and unionist communities. For nationalists, these included the Falls Curfew of July 1970, in which British troops cordoned off nationalist neighborhoods in Belfast, not allowing residents in or out of the area; 4 nationalists were killed in fighting between British troops and the IRA. The introduction of internment without trial in August 1971 was viewed by nationalists as discriminatory, as 348 of the first 350 people interned were nationalists. Of nearly 2,000 people interned over the next four years, 94.6% were nationalists. For unionists, IRA actions similarly hardened their positions. For example, the IRA carried out 1,300 bombings by the end of 1972, largely against commercial targets, considerably disrupting everyday life and often resulting in the deaths of uninvolved civilians. The worst example during this period is known as Bloody Friday, when the IRA set off 22 bombs on July 21, 1972, causing 9 deaths and 130 injuries. The IRA provided warnings to security forces via the media, but given the number of bombs planted did not give sufficient time to allow the security forces to evacuate the areas. In some cases, ambiguous warnings led to people being led toward, rather than away from, bombs about to be detonated.

In 1972 the UK government, deeming the Northern Ireland government unable to stabilise the situation, suspended the Northern Ireland parliament and instituted direct rule from London. While direct rule was intended as a temporary measure, it continued throughout the course of the Troubles.

Current government

Position Current Holder
Monarch King Charles III
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris
First Minister TDB
Deputy First Minister TBD

Although constitutionally the United Kingdom is a unitary state with one sovereign, parliament and government - there has been moves to give power to national legislature in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, this has taken the form of devolution. Power for certain areas of government like education, health and the environment are fully the responsibility of their national governments. However, central government maintains the right to overturn any decision by a national assembly, as such the Parliament of the United Kingdom remains sovereign in the United Kingdom as a whole.


The current political set-up in Northern Ireland stems from the Belfast Agreement of 1998 which provided for an elected Northern Ireland Assembly and a power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive to be jointly headed by the leaders of the main Unionist and Nationalist parties.



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  1. Multiple references: See also;
  2. It moved to the Stormont estate in 1932, and was often called the Stormont government.
  3. John Whyte, "How much discrimination was there under the unionist regime, 1921-68?" in Contemporary Irish Studies, edited by Tom Gallagher and James O'Connell (1983), online edition
  4. Boyce (2004)
  5. Article 2 said "The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland;" article 3 claimed the "right of the Parliament and Government established by this Constitution to exercise jurisdiction over the whole of that territory." Article 9 added, "Fidelity to the nation and loyalty to the State are fundamental political duties of all citizens." See [1]
  6. Elliott, Catholics of Ulster (2001) p. 396
  7. Joseph L. Rosenberg, "Irish Conscription: 1941." Éire-ireland 1979 14(1): 16-25. Issn: 0013-2683
  8. Philip Ollerenshaw, "War, Industrial Mobilisation and Society in Northern Ireland, 1939-1945." Contemporary European History 2007 16(2): 169-197. Issn: 0960-7773
  9. Barton, "Brooke" 2004
  10. Bardon, J. (1992). A History of Ulster. The Blackstaff Press, Belfast, pp. 539.