Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom situated on the island of Ireland. It covers 14,000 km2 (5,500 square miles). It was created by the Government of Ireland Act 1920, enacted by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland parliament in 1921. Faced with divergent demands from Irish nationalists and Unionists over the future of the island of Ireland (the former wanted an all-Irish home rule parliament to govern the entire island, the latter no home rule at all), and the fear of civil war between both groups, the British Government under David Lloyd George passed the Government of Ireland Act, creating two home rule Irelands, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. Southern Ireland never came into being as a real state and was superseded by the Irish Free State in 1922. That state is now known as the Republic of Ireland.
Northern Ireland is also called, by some, "Ulster" or "the Six Counties". Ulster is one of the historic provinces of the island of Ireland, consisting of 9 counties. 3 of these are now in the Republic of Ireland. The remaining six are in Northern Ireland:
In fact, post the establishment of Northern Ireland, the six counties were in reality redivided into 26 local authorities for administrative purposes (if not cultural e.g. the GAA and The Orange Order) , meaning that strictly, there is no longer any such thing as the 'Six counties'. (Nor has the 'twenty six' county Republic of Ireland twenty-six counties ; it actually has thirty three; 'county' Tipperary is actually two counties, Tipperary North Riding and Tipperary South Riding , while Dublin was broken in four to form 'Fingal', 'Dublin City', 'South County Dublin' and 'Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown',. Counties such as Limerick, Cork and Galway are also split between city and county. (These divisions with the exception of Dublin predate partition). Culturally, however there are still 26 counties in the Republic of Ireland)
Northern Ireland along with Great Britain formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1922, following the independence achieved for the twenty-six Southern Ireland state as the Irish Free State. Northern Ireland's capital city is Belfast.
The area now known as Northern Ireland has had a diverse history. From being the bedrock of Irish nationalism in the era of the plantations of Queen Elizabeth and James I in other parts of Ireland, it became itself the source of major planting of Scottish settlers from the Flight of the Earls (when the native governing and military nationalist elite left en masse) onwards. Today, Northern Ireland is a diverse patchwork of community rivalries, represented in Belfast by whole communities flying the tricolour of Irish republicanism or the Union Flag, the symbol of their British identity, while even the kerbstones in less affluent areas are painted green, white and orange or red, white and blue, depending on whether a community is nationalist/republican or unionist/loyalist.
Having been given self government in 1920 (even though they never sought it, and some like Sir Edward Carson were bitterly opposed) the Northern Ireland government under successive prime ministers from Sir James Craig (later Lord Craigavon) practiced a policy of wholesale discrimination against the nationalist/ Roman Catholic minority. Northern Ireland became, in the words of Nobel Peace Prize joint-winner, Ulster Unionist Leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland David Trimble, a "cold place for catholics." Towns and cities were gerrymandered to rig local government elections to ensure Protestant control of town councils. Voting arrangements which gave commercial companies votes and minimum income regulations also helped achieve this end.
In the 1960s, moderate unionist prime minister Terence O'Neill (later Lord O'Neill of the Maine) tried to reform the system, but was met with wholesale opposition from extreme fundamentalist protestant leaders like Rev. Ian Paisley. The increasing pressures from nationalists for reform and from extreme unionists for No surrender led to the appearance of the civil rights movement under figures like John Hume, Austin Currie and others. Clashes between marchers and the Royal Ulster Constabulary led to increased communal strife. The British army was originally sent to Northern Ireland by British Home Secretary, Jim Callaghan to protect nationalists from attack, and was warmly welcomed. However the murder of thirteen unarmed civilians in Derry by British Paratroopers enflamed the situation and turned northern nationalists against the British Army. The appearance of the Provisional IRA, a breakaway from the increasingly marxist Official IRA, and a campaign of violence by loyalist terror groups like the Ulster Defence Association and others, brought Northern Ireland to the brink of Civil War. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, extremists on both sides carried out a series of brutal mass murders, often on innocent civilians. Among the most notorious outrages were the Le Mon bombing and the bombings in Enniskillen and Omagh.
Some British politicians, notably former British Labour minister Tony Benn advocated British withdrawal from Ireland, but this policy was opposed by successive Irish governments, who called their prediction of the possible results of British withdrawal the Doomsday Scenario, with widespread communal strife, followed by the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children as refugees to their community's 'side' of the province; nationalist fleeing to western Northern Ireland, unionists fleeing to eastern Northern Ireland. The worst fear was of a civil war which would engulf not just northern ireland, but the neighbouring Republic of Ireland and Scotland both of whom had major links with either or both communities. Later, the feared possible impact of British Withdrawal came to called the Balkanisation of Northern Ireland after the violent break-up of Yugoslavia and the chaos it unleashed.
In the early 1970s, the Parliament of Northern Ireland was prorogued after the province's Unionist Government under the premiership of Brian Faulkner refused to agree to the British Government demand that it hand over the powers of law and order, and Direct Rule was introduced from London starting on March 24, 1972. New systems of governments were tried and failed, including power-sharing under Sunningdale, Rolling Devolution and the Anglo-Irish Agreement. By the 1990s, the failure of the IRA campaign to win mass public support or achieve its aim by British Withdrawal, and in particular the public relations disaster that was the Enniskillen, when families attending a Remembrance Day ceremony, along with the replacement of the traditional Republican leadership of Ruairi Ó Bradaigh by Gerry Adams, saw a move away from armed conflict to political engagement. These changes were followed the appearance of new leaders in Dublin Albert Reynolds, London John Major and in unionism David Trimble. Contacts initiatively been Adams and John Hume, leader of the Social Democrat and Labour Party, broadened out into all party negotiations, that in 1998 produced the 'Good Friday Agreement which was approved by a majority of both communities in Northern Ireland and by the people of the Republic of Ireland, where the constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann was amended to replace a claim it allegedly made to the territory of Northern Ireland with a recognition of Northern Ireland's right to exist, while also acknowledging the nationalist desire for a united Ireland.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, properly known as the Belfast Agreement, a new Northern Assembly was elected to form a Northern Irish parliament. Every party that reaches a specific level of support is entitled to name a member of its party to government and claim a ministry. Ulster Unionist party leader David Trimble became First Minister of Northern Ireland. The Deputy Leader of the SDLP, Seamus Mallon, became Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, though he was subsequently replaced by his party's new leader, Mark Durkan. The Ulster Unionists, SDLP, Sinn Féin and Democratic Unionist Party each had ministers by right in the power-sharing assembly. The Assembly and its Executive are both currently suspended over unionist threats over the alleged delay in the Provisional IRA implementing its agreement to decommission its weaponry, and also the alleged discovery or an IRA spy-ring operating in the heart of the civil service. Government is now once more run by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Paul Murphy and a British ministerial team answerable to him.
The changing climate in Northern Ireland was represented by the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Parliament Buildings in Stormont, where she met nationalist ministers from the SDLP as well as unionist ministers, and spoke of the rights of those Northern Irish people who perceive themselves as Irish, to be treated as equal citizens with those who regard themselves as British. Similarly, on visits to Northern Ireland, the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese met with unionist ministers and with the local Lord Lieutenant of each county, the representative of the Queen.
Northern Ireland is a complex entity, divided between two different cultural communities, unionists and nationalists. Both communities are often described by their predominant religious attachments; unionists are predominantly protestant (the major protestant faith is presbyterianism, the second in terms of size is the Church of Ireland, while nationalists are predominantly Roman Catholic. However contrary to widespread belief, not all Roman Catholics are nationalist, and not all protestants are unionist.
When it was established under the Government of Ireland Act, Northern Ireland was structured geographically so as to have a unionist majority, unionist fears as to what would happen to them forming the basis for their opposition to a united Ireland, which led to creation of the two Irish states. However a larger Roman Catholic birth rate has seen the Roman Catholic population increase in percentage terms with Northern Ireland, with a corresponding decrease in the protestant percentage.
The religious affiliations, based on census returns, have changed as follows between 1961 and 2002:
|Church of Ireland||24.2||17.7||15.3||0.0|
|None||0.0||3.8||5.0||2.7||Note: The total of all Protestant religious affiliations for clarity are placed together in the final column of the biggest Protestant faith, Presbyterianism|
At first glance, such numbers suggest that a majority for Irish unity may be possible in the medium term, in our around the year 2030. Detailed study of the figures, for example, when matched with the geographic areas from which such respondents came from, suggests that the proportion who refused to indicate a religious affiliation are overwhelming protestant, with a small number Roman Catholic. When adjusted, the Roman Catholic proportion as a result in reality amounts to 44.5%, much less than the 47-48% expected by some commentators before the census results were revealed in December 2002. However much of the Roman Catholic increase is below voting age, so will not impact on election results for some time yet. But opinion polls show that a significant proportion of the Roman Catholic electorate, approximately 35% of all Roman Catholics before the Belfast Agreement (it is estimated that that proportion may have declined to 20% since then) would prefer to remain the United Kingdom, in part because of the belief that a united Ireland, even after the Celtic Tiger, could not pay the 4 billion subsidies that currently keep Northern Ireland's economy afloat, subsidies currently paid by the British Exchequer, leading to a substantial decline in income and job prospects in the event of a united Ireland.
So Irish unity would require (i) a continuation in a higher birth rate among Roman Catholics than Protestants, which as Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland are increasingly resorting to birth control, is unlikely, and (ii) a substantial shift among Roman Catholic opinion in favour of Irish unity, which again shows no evidence of occurring particularly if the Belfast Agreement succeeds in reducing sectarianism and so making it possible for more Roman Catholics to vote for the unionist parties. (Some vote for the middle of the road Alliance Party, the Ulster Unionist Party now one Roman Catholic MLA (members of the Legislative Assembly in Stormont), while even the fundamentalist protestant Reverend Ian Paisley attracts an small number of Roman Catholic votes in his predominantly Protestant constituency at general elections. )
The ultimate irony is that while Sinn Féin in particular sold the Belfast Agreement on the basis that it would 'deliver' Irish unity in the medium term, by reducing sectarianism it may make the a discrimination-free Northern Ireland's status quo more attractive to Roman Catholics, making the necessary shift that must occur among those Roman Catholics not currently in favour of Irish unity, less likely. There is no statistical evidence of a major shift towards nationalism among many Protestants, who themselves may become satisfied with the status quo, should the Belfast Agreement work. In the event of the Belfast Agreement's failure, and a return to the sort of sectarianism that maintains strong through not exclusive allegiances to each other's community parties, at best catholics and protestants may reach a balance in terms of percentages, but given the proportion of Roman Catholics not favouring Irish unity, that in itself would maintain the status quo, namely Northern Ireland's membership of the United Kingdom.