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Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom

  • According to the 2011 Census, out of 1.8 million inhabitants, 40.76 per cent stated their religion as Roman Catholics, 19.06 per cent as Presbyterians, 13.74 per cent as Church of Ireland, 3 per cent as Methodists, 5.76 per cent were from other primarily Protestant denominations, 0.82 per cent other religions, 10.11 per cent no religions and 6.75 per cent did not state any religion. Roughly equal proportions of Roman Catholics and Protestants live in Belfast and County Armagh. Protestants were the majority in 13 local government districts and formed over three-quarters of the inhabitants in six of these districts. They were most numerous in Carrickfergus (85 per cent), Ards (83 per cent) and North Down (80 per cent). Roman Catholics were the majority in 11 local government districts. They accounted for more than three-quarters of inhabitants in Newry and Mourne (81 per cent were) and Derry (75 per cent).

    The 2011 Census also recorded Asian 19,130 (including Chinese 0.35 per cent, Indian 0.34 per cent, Pakistani 0.06 per cent, Bangladeshi 0.03 per cent and other Asian 0.28 per cent), Travellers 1,301 (0.07 per cent), Black 3,616 (including Black Caribbean 0.02 per cent, Black African 0.13 per cent and Black other 0.05 per cent), mixed (6,014) and other (2,353).

    The 2011 Census recorded that 10.65 per cent of the population aged 3 or over had some knowledge of Irish Gaeilige and 8.08 per cent with some knowledge of Ulster Scots. Scholars have previously estimated the number of fluent Gaellige speakers at 13,000 to 15,000, with a further 40,000 to 45,000 functional speakers. There are also an estimated 5,000 – 10,000 speakers of Ulster-Scots for whom it is their only language.


  • Ulster, one of the four historic kingdoms of Ireland, consisted of nine counties. The Normans occupied eastern Ulster from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, after which Ulster became the only part of Ireland free of English control. It was an area of resistance and a bastion of the Gaelic legal and social system.

    In 1536 King Henry VIII of England persuaded the Irish Parliament to declare him head of the Irish Church. But the Irish nobility then rejected this decision. From 1594 the armies of Queen Elizabeth I gradually conquered Ireland. The Ulster chieftains made a last stand with Spanish support. They were defeated in 1603 but they were allowed to retain their land. However, when they left for Spain to raise support against the English in 1607, the English government of Ireland took their lands.

    The colonization of Ulster was more complete than that of the rest of Ireland. Although the English and Scottish landowners were not supposed to take Irish tenants or sell land to the Irish, Irish tenants remained in the majority on all estates. The Scottish nobility brought some of their poorest tenants, while their English counterparts were unable to persuade their tenants to move. Many of the nobility sold their land to the government officials.

    The political aim of the plantation was for new Protestant settlers to be based around market towns protected by garrisons. A market and money-based economy was introduced which allowed for crippling rents. Roman Catholic priests were to be banned and the Irish population forced to convert to Protestantism, but this was not fully implemented. Most new priests were Scottish Presbyterians but they became Church of Ireland ministers. The Presbytery of Ulster was established in 1642 after the Dublin government dismissed Presbyterian ministers from the Church of Ireland.

    Roman Catholic rebellion

    In 1641 Roman Catholic Irish rebellion broke out in Ulster, where several thousand settlers were slaughtered. The revolt spread to other parts of Ireland and war continued for almost a decade. In 1649 Oliver Cromwell carried out similar carnage to suppress the revolt and re-establish Protestant control. Bitter enmity between Protestants and Roman Catholics remained and war broke out again in 1689 when Roman Catholic King James II of England sought to regain his throne from his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange. King William’s victory over King James is still celebrated by the Ulster Protestants.

    In 1778 the Irish Volunteers citizens’ militia was established by Anglican Protestants in Ulster, inspired by the American Constitution. Militias were set up later in Dublin and elsewhere. Presbyterians and Roman Catholics did not have the right to bear arms but they were admitted to the Irish Volunteers. The Volunteers won free trade for Irish exports to England and greater autonomy for the Irish Parliament. However, their sympathy for the French Revolution resulted in the organization being banned in 1793.

    In Ulster the Roman Catholic Defenders obtained arms illegally to defend their property. They were countered by the Protestant Peep O’Day Boys, who invaded and wrecked Roman Catholic homes to find and destroy weapons. The Orange Order, set up in Armagh in 1795, took over from the Peep O’Day Boys.

    The Presbyterians, like the Roman Catholics, were excluded from power for religious reasons. Inspired by the American and French revolutions, Presbyterians and Roman Catholics, including former members of the Irish Volunteers, founded the United Irishmen and rebelled against English rule and the Church of Ireland ascendancy in 1798. After suppressing the revolt, the British government abolished the Dublin government in 1800. Roman Catholics were allowed to vote and hold public office in 1829. Protestant and Roman Catholic Irish campaigned for home rule or independence from England in the rest of the nineteenth century. However, in November 1885, the first election with adult male suffrage, the Loyalist minority in the north-east half of Ulster returned Unionists, while every other seat returned a Home Rule candidate.

    In 1912, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was set up to block Home Rule by a Roman Catholic majority from Dublin. In Dublin the Irish Volunteers were revived in 1913 by Roman Catholics to fight for Home Rule. Following Sinn Fein’s declaration of the Irish Republic in Dublin in 1919, the Irish Volunteers became the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Both the UVF and IRA were banned by the British government, although the UVF’s cause had strong support from the opposition Conservative Party.

    The IRA and UVF campaigns

    The six counties of Fermanagh, Tyrone, Armagh, Londonderry, Antrim and Down were politically separated from the rest of Ireland in 1921. A devolved parliament was set up at Stormont in Belfast.

    From 1920 to 1922 the IRA attacked mainly military and political targets in Ulster. The UVF and other Protestants carried out reprisals on the Roman Catholic community, which retaliated with sectarian violence against Protestants. Many Roman Catholics left the six counties for the Republic, and as many Protestants left the Republic for Ulster. The Roman Catholic community fell from around 40 per cent of the population in Ulster in 1911 to 34 per cent in 1926.

    Northern Ireland suffered badly from the economic recession of the 1920s and depression of the 1930s. The finances allocated under the Home Rule Act were insufficient and housing and other social problems became acute. There was discrimination against Roman Catholics in jobs and housing, as well as gerrymandering of local council wards to ensure Protestant majorities.

    In 1956 the IRA launched a bombing campaign but this ended in 1962 due to lack of support from Northern Irish Roman Catholics and internment by the authorities on both sides of the border. However, in 1966 the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) re-formed, ostensibly to fight the IRA. Civil rights marches were obstructed by Unionists, but in early 1969 the Unionist Party Prime Minister Terence O’Neill proposed reforms to meet some of the civil rights demands, particularly the abolition of company votes in local elections, the allocation of council housing on the basis of need, the replacement of the Londonderry Corporation by a development commission, abolition of special police powers as soon as possible, and the creation of an ombudsman for complaints against government departments.

    The majority of the Stormont MPs rejected these reforms and the collision course was set. The 1969 People’s Democracy march was attacked by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the Ulster police force. Trouble flared throughout Northern Ireland through 1969, culminating in the ‘Battle of the Bogside’, when the RUC laid siege to the Bogside in Londonderry and residents fought back with stones and petrol bombs. In Belfast at the end of two days of rioting ten people were killed, 145 were injured and nearly 200 houses, mostly Roman Catholic, were burnt out.

    British troops sent to Northern Ireland

    British troops were sent to Northern Ireland in 1970 to provide a non-partisan alternative to the police, who were almost entirely Protestant. At first welcomed by the Roman Catholics, they were soon regarded as an occupying force to keep the Unionist establishment in power. In 1971, all marches and parades in Northern Ireland were banned, and internment – indefinite imprisonment without trial – was introduced. In respect of internment, which was used exclusively against the Roman Catholic community, the UK was taken to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and found guilty of ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’.

    On 30 January 1972, Bloody Sunday, 14 unarmed Roman Catholics were shot dead by British troops during a banned march by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in Derry. The British government claimed the troops were responding to the threat of IRA gunmen and nail bombers, but this was contested by journalists present at the event. This incident presaged the suspension of the Stormont government and direct rule from Westminster from March 1972 for over 25 years.

    Attempts to revive the Northern Ireland Assembly through the 1970s were unsuccessful, as the bloodshed spread from Northern Ireland to mainland Britain. IRA bombs in a Guildford pub in October and a Birmingham pub in November 1974, which left 24 dead and 226 wounded, launched the IRA’s campaign in mainland Britain.

    IRA and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) campaigns were accompanied by sectarian violence from loyalist paramilitary groups the UVF and Ulster Defence Association (UDA). The Protestants lost faith in the British government following the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which gave the Dublin government a role in Northern Ireland’s affairs. From 1990 the number of loyalist attacks was greater than those of the nationalists.

    Prevention of Terrorism Act

    The Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act of 1973, extending the army’s right to stop and detain suspects, and the Prevention of Terrorism Act were consistently renewed at Westminster with little debate. The PTA allowed for a person to be detained for up to seven days without being brought before a court and for a Northern Ireland resident to be excluded from Great Britain for a minimum of three years by decision of the Home Secretary. No evidence to support such actions need be produced.

    According to the Repeal of the PTA Campaign, between 1986 and 1990 approximately 86,000 people, predominantly Irish, were detained for up to an hour under the act. The ‘right to silence’ was removed in 1988, despite the advice of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, and this was extended to the mainland in the Criminal Justice Act 1994. The principle of equality before the law was frustrated by the Diplock court system, which distinguished between security-related murders and ‘ordinary’ murders.

    In 1992 Roman Catholic communities took a stand against the police and the Protestant Loyal Orders over the traditional summer marches through Roman Catholic areas in celebration of Protestant victories over Roman Catholics 300 years previously. The police effectively made Roman Catholics prisoners in their homes while the marchers passed by taunting them with abuse. Several summers of violence followed, with the British army and police taking an increasingly restrictive attitude to the marchers.

    Moves towards peace

    The public revulsion in Ireland north and south and in England over an IRA bomb which killed two children in England in 1993 led to the cross-border women’s peace initiative in Ireland and a campaign for peace in England led by the father of one of the victims. The IRA called a ceasefire in August 1994 and the British government held the first high-level talks with Sinn Fein for 23 years following negotiations by the leader of the Northern Ireland nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), John Hume. The Combined Loyalist Military Command, mainly the UDA, UVF and the Red Hand Commandoes, called a ceasefire in October 1994.

    Roman Catholic and Protestant paramilitaries opposed to the ceasefires split from the main groups. The Real IRA and Loyalist Volunteer Force, set up in 1996, were held responsible for a number of atrocities not all of which they have claimed. The worst of these was the Omagh bomb, for which the Real IRA belatedly apologized, which killed 29 people in 1998, the worst single incident of the ‘Troubles’.

    Two years of peace talks led to the 1998 Northern Ireland Act, better known as the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement, which set out the basis for peace and political power-sharing between the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities.

    The Good Friday Agreement

    The Agreement restored devolution to the Stormont Assembly and required participation from unionists, nationalists and cross-community parties on all major decisions. Assembly members are elected by proportional representation, with ministerial and committee chairman posts allocated proportionally to party strength in the Assembly. The European Convention on Human Rights and a future Northern Ireland Bill of Rights have precedence over any other legislation adopted by the Assembly. Discrimination on religious grounds was banned. A new Equality Commission for Northern Ireland was set up in 1999 to promote racial, gender, religious and other equality.

    The Good Friday Agreement also provided for the release of prisoners from paramilitary organizations that upheld their ceasefires, the decommissioning of weapons by these groups, the reform of the almost exclusively Protestant police force, and the withdrawal of British troops. It set up a Parades Commission to negotiate between the Protestant Loyal Orders and Roman Catholic communities for the Protestant parades through Roman Catholic areas.

    The prisoners were released and the troops gradually withdrawn. The police force was reformed in 2001 with half of all new recruits from the Roman Catholic community. However, it will take a long time for parity of Roman Catholics and Protestants to be achieved. IRA decommissioning began in 2000, but Unionists always demanded more proof of destroyed weapons than the IRA was willing to give. In 2005 the IRA announced an end to all violence. Decommissioning and the police force have been the two main points of continuing distrust between the two main communities.

    Most of the political parties, including new parties formed to represent the Protestant paramilitary groups, supported the Good Friday Agreement. But the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was initially against it, as were some members of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). Power-sharing folded in 2002. At the November 2003 elections voters returned hard-line politicians. The DUP became the largest party, taking over from the UUP, while Sinn Fein emerged the largest nationalist party, ousting the more moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

    Several private cross-community initiatives have been undertaken to bring about truth and reconciliation for past abuses. The British and Irish governments are in favour of a process of this kind, but they have not found a particular form that meets with sufficient acceptance by all sides. The British government withdrew its Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill in 2005, which would have given amnesty to state agents and paramilitaries involved in crimes. The Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday was the closest official action to truth and reconciliation, but the report has been repeatedly postponed. Previous British government inquiries into this incident whitewashed the action of the British troops.

    In October 2006 the St Andrews Agreement led to the Northern Ireland Act 2006 which paved the way for new elections in and a revival of the Assembly in May 2007, with DUP leader Dr Ian Paisley as First Minister and the Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister. This situation would have been unimaginable in 1999 or even 2002.


  • The issues of weapons decommissioning and the police remain contentious for the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities. Sectarian and internecine violence continues. Verbal abuse and intimidation are widespread. The traditional mix of drug trafficking and other illegal activities along with gun running among paramilitaries on both sides has left lasting complications for the communities and policing since the ceasefire.

    The withdrawal of the British troops and the new focus of the police on fairness and community policing have dramatically altered the atmosphere in Northern Ireland. But working-class Roman Catholics appear to have benefited more from peace than working-class Protestants, and the latter are particularly distrustful. The level of support for hard-line politicians expresses this distrust.

    Inequalities between the Protestant and Catholic communities, while levelling, remain an issue of contention, particularly when reinforced by apparent discrimination at an institutional level. According to the Equality Commission, for instance, Catholics continue to have to wait on average six months longer for social housing than their Protestant counterparts.

    Tensions around the Northern Ireland border have intensified since the June 2016 Brexit vote and the subsequent triggering of Article 50 by the British government. Debates around the arrangements for Northern Ireland after Brexit have sharpened political divisions and threaten to undermine the precarious entente in place following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement between the Irish and UK governments over the region. In order to keep the border open on the island of Ireland, the UK government signed a protocol with the EU to introduce customs rules on goods being shipped across the Irish Sea. The intention was to prevent the border from becoming a contested zone again, but the protocol has increasingly become contested. Unionist politicians complain that it introduces a de facto border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.  Businesses worry that the increased paperwork may harm the local economy.  By mid-2022, the UK government had threatened to rewrite key sections of the protocol, while the EU had introduced infringement proceedings against it.


Updated September 2022

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