Northern Ireland*


Currency unit

British pound







Slugger O'Toole

University course






The state consists of six counties which together have a Protestant majority, though the Catholics have a majority in two of them. The inhabitants sometimes call it Ulster, but historic Ulster, one of the ancient kingdoms or provinces of Ireland, includes three other counties, now in the Republic. (Even historic Ulster - Uladh - was not a fixed area and varied with time.)

It is argued by some that even before the first Norman invasions of Ireland, Ulster was less integrated with Ireland than the other traditional kingdoms (Leinster, Munster and Connacht). Ulster had closer relations with what is now Scotland and the routes into the rest of Ireland passed through easily blocked passes. It was from Ulster that the Scots (Gaelic-speakers) entered Scotland.

The state was set up as a result of the British 1920 Ireland Act which allowed for two parliaments in Ireland and a Council of Ireland to coordinate the two. The representatives elected to the parliament in Belfast refused to join the Council of Ireland which thus never came into being.

A boundary commission was promised in the 1921 Treaty and met in 1925 but did not transfer the two counties of Fermanagh, Tyrone and parts of Armagh which might have voted for accession to the South.

Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom at the request of the majority of its inhabitants. About a third of its inhabitants wish it to join the Republic of Ireland. If the majority were to vote in a referendum it would join.

Some of the inhabitants (not all of them Catholics) carry passports of the Republic of Ireland and all are eligible for Irish citizenship. Some prominent citizens have been appointed by the Irish government to the Irish Senate.

Northern Ireland is an example of a territory with two nationalist traditions (like Palestine, Transylvania, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Kurdistan, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kosovo, Bosnia). The nationalist traditions have bred venomous hatred of the kind felt by the Serbs and Croats. This is what makes it so easy for some people to kill others. The evidence is that the majority of both sides, although they do not take part in the killing, passively accept it and approve of it. (But the rate of killing is much less than that in American cities from 'ordinary' crime).

The Protestant majority are partly descendants of Scots who crossed into Ireland as a result of the failure of the harvests in Scotland during the Little Ice Age in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were encouraged to move by the Scottish king James the sixth, later James the first of England. Some of the settlers were part of a plan to settle the land of Ulster and displace the native Irish. Their religion was Presbyterian Protestant, whereas most of the native Irish remained Roman Catholics and the English ruling group were Protestant Episcopalian (Anglican). But some of the natives converted to keep their land.

During the 18th century the Presbyterians were themselves persecuted by the Episcopalian English controlled government. Many of them migrated to the United States and formed the culture of Appalachia and Kentucky (where they are usually called Scotch-Irish).

The first protests against the Union of Ireland and Britain were led by a Protestant, Wolfe Tone, of the United Irishmen during the Napoleonic wars. But the next wave of Irish protest was for Catholic Emancipation.

During the 19th century the Presbyterian Scots formed the labor force and capitalists of an industrial culture which included the growing and weaving of flax into linen and the heavy industry of shipbuilding. Belfast became the main industrial center of Ireland.

As the Irish nationalist culture became predominantly Catholic, the Presbyterians lost their identification with Ireland and came to see themselves as British and identified with the British Empire which made them prosperous. In the 1890s when the call came for Irish Home Rule (a devolved Parliament in Dublin for the whole country, but subordinate to the British Parliament) the Protestants of the north began to resist the idea, fearing Catholic religious domination. In 1912 the Protestants demanded the right of a varying number of counties (9 or 6) to opt out.

In 1914 the Irish Home Rule Act was due to come into force, but the Protestants formed a private army - the Ulster Volunteers - to resist the application of the Act. The Nationalists also formed a volunteer force - the Irish Volunteers. The British government and other people (including the German government) at the time - June 1914 - thought a civil war was likely but the first world war came first. Members of the two volunteer forces joined the British army and went to the battles of the world war. During the war the act was suspended and the northerners were promised the right to opt out. The result was the 1920 Act and two separate parliaments. In 1918 the last all-Ireland election (for the British Parliament) produced 73 Sinn Fein members and 35 Unionists. The majority refused to go to London and declared themselves the Assembly (Dail) of the Republic of Ireland. In 1921 Sinn Fein gained all the southern seats and voted to secede completely.

Many of the Catholic minority within Northern Ireland have never accepted the state. The usual British electoral system produced a one-party hegemony which discriminated against the nationalist minority. As well as having a local parliament Northern Ireland sent members to the British Parliament. Almost all of these were Unionists. A military force of guerrillas continued terrorist action from time to time. They were opposed by a paramilitary armed police force (B-specials), formed from Protestants, which acted like a vigilante society.

In 1969 demonstrations against one-party domination, gerrymandered voting districts and job and housing discrimination led to the British sending troops to keep order (at first to protect the minority from the majority). In the first months they were welcomed by the Catholics, but later were seen as occupiers. Later the government imposed Direct Rule, suspending the local Parliament and government.

Following this the IRA resumed a campaign of guerrilla action. There is some evidence that they received some support in money and arms from members of the Irish government (Click on Wars). The army then came under attack from the IRA and other similar guerrilla groups. Protestant guerrilla groups (usually referred to as "Loyalist Paramilitary organizations") also formed. These include the Ulster Defence Association, the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Freedom Fighters.

Several attempts were made to restore local devolved government to Northern Ireland but these failed because the politicians elected by the two communities refused to agree or even talk to each other. An assembly with a power-sharing executive (between the representatives of the two communities) was elected in 1974 but a General Strike by the majority population caused it to fail.

The current British official policy is that Northern Ireland remains as a part of the United Kingdom unless the people vote to leave. Most commentators have been pessimistic until recently (2007) of any peaceful solution. Some commentators believe that American politicians, dependent on Irish-American votes, have pressed both sides to attempt to come to a resolution of the problem. The Irish government view appears to be that although they wish a united Ireland, it must be by agreement rather than military conquest. There seems to be very little popular support now for the IRA (as demonstrated by elections in north and south), and none from the Irish government.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 was signed in order to give the government of the Republic a say in the affairs of the north to give the Nationalist population the feeling they have a protector. The British hoped for more co-operation in security matters, such as the right to extradite terrorists from the Republic for trial in Britain (and, theoretically, in the opposite direction). It provides for regular ministerial consultation. The Unionists feared, and others hoped, that it might be a step towards at least co-operation in Ireland if not a united Ireland. Even the European Union which both parts are members of does not seem to be reducing the tension between the two communities.

Talks in Summer 1991 which were intended to provide the basis for a settlement were broken up by the refusal of the Unionists to talk about anything. The situation has some similarities with the Israeli refusal to talk with Palestinians.

It has been suggested that the birth rates of the two communities are such that in 20 years the Catholics might have a majority. Would a vote then allow the province to join the Republic (if ethnic cleansing does not break out)? But latest studies show that the Catholic rate is now no higher than the Protestant.

The IRA is believed to be trying to drive Protestant farmers off the land near the border by a policy of killing the heirs. The 1991 Census shows that about 52% are Protestant and 43% Catholic. However, other factors also are effective: emigration to Britain by Catholics seeking work is important when the British economy is not in depression. Not all Catholics are Nationalist.

American readers should appreciate that, as with most world problems, there is no simple solution (such as "Brits out" which would probably lead to a Yugoslav-type war) because there is no simple cause.

An IRA "Ceasefire" was declared at the end of August 1994. Is it the first stage of a settlement? Peace Talks scarcely took place and by the end of 1995 violence seemed to be increasing again. The IRA announced its end in February 1996. "All-Party" talks (without Sinn Fein) were announced but violence increased again with bombs in Britain and riots in NI.

A new ceasefire resulted in the Good Friday agreement of 1998. This involved most of the military factions agreeing to ceasefire and give up fighting in return for a devolved assembly and local self-government.

Finally on 29 July 2005 the IRA announced an end to the war.

The original fears of the Protestant majority were that a united Ireland would be dominated by a reactionary Catholic Church - as indeed the Republic was until the 1960s. But that domination has ended, as the Catholic Church lost the respect of the majority of people in the South (paedophile priests). Thus the cause of the desire for opting out has now gone. Many Protestants of course do not believe that the power of the Church has gone. It can be speculated that if the Protestants had agreed to Home Rule in 1918, under the voting system adopted in the Republic (originally by British ministers) their presence would have prevented the subsequent Catholic dictatorship and even the break up of the Union. This is one of the great might have beens of history.

In 2009 a ten year judicial enquiry into abuse by the church reported.
See this BBC report Irish Catholic church abuse



Gaelic (small minority).






Northern Ireland has elections for local authorities, which have few powers, the Westminster Parliament and for the European Parliament. The parties are divided along community lines rather than by a right-left division. Thus the only question people vote on is whether the province shall join Ireland or stay in Britain. This is despite the fact that there is high unemployment and poor housing and other social services.

In British terms it would be expected that as in Scotland there would be a large Labour Party vote. But the Protestant working class have voted for the Unionist Parties which used to be affiliated with the Conservative Party. These have cut their link with the Conservative Party and their MPs sometimes voted with the Labour opposition before 1997.

The actual parties are: Alliance; Ulster Unionist (UUP); Democratic Unionist (DUP); Social Democratic and Labour (SDLP); Sinn Fein (SF).

Until 1990 the mainland parties did not organize in Northern Ireland, but recently some people have formed Conservative Associations. However, they have not received many votes in local elections. The Labour Party continues to forbid the organizing of local Labour Parties, on the grounds that the SDLP is affiliated to the Socialist International.

The DUP represents the extreme Protestant religious group the Free Presbyterian Church, allied with some fundamentalist groups in the United States. Its main political principle is opposition to Catholicism.

Alliance represents an attempt to form a non-sectarian Liberal party. Its vote is believed to be mainly middle class.

It is generally believed that the real power in the province was exercised by a secret society, the Orange Order, which means the Province has something in common with former South Africa (the Broederbond) and West Africa (e.g. the Poro Society of Sierra Leone). The Orange Order commemorates the coming of king William the third to Ireland to defeat the Catholic armies of king James the second in 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne (a river, now in the Republic of Ireland). That battle confirmed English power in Ireland and prevented the return of the Stuarts to the throne.

The Orange Order exercised its power overtly by marching with drums and fifes through Catholic and Protestant areas alike in a menacing manner, thus giving the province a bizarre set of tribal rituals. Covertly it influenced, and perhaps still does, all major government and private appointments. Thus Catholics were excluded from the best paid employment and more are still unemployed than the Protestants.

In recent elections Northern Ireland has used the Irish electoral system of Single Transferable Vote for local and European elections (though not for Westminster) in order to prevent single-party representation. Thus the three European Members come from the three main parties, Social Democratic and Labour (moderate nationalist), Unionist and Democratic Unionist (moderate and extreme Protestant, respectively).

The British government was believed to wish to restore a devolved government but could only do so with the support of the Irish Republic, which would require that Nationalists and Unionists form a coalition government to represent both sides. As the Unionist Parties consistently refused to do this, devolved government seemed unlikely for a long time. The Catholic population mainly support the SDLP but a minority vote for Sinn Fein, generally believed to be the political wing of the Provisional IRA.

Some members of the Unionist parties are beginning to talk of independence rather than continued union with Britain. These include the Ulster Democratic Party, the political wing of the Ulster Defence Association.

Attempted talks during May and June 1991 between the Protestant parties and the Catholics were organized by the British. The Protestants spent the time filibustering and refused to agree any substantial changes to the situation. As they have been elected it must be assumed that they represent the opinion of the average Protestant, which suggested agreement on ending the situation was very unlikely.

In the long run integrated education is suggested as a solution but only a few integrated schools have been set up and these are used mainly by middle class people (who tend to emigrate).

There may be a movement for independence along the lines of Croatia and other eastern European peoples. An independent northern Ireland seems unlikely to be viable as, like Croatia or Bosnia, it might face a military threat from the IRA and their American supporters, especially in the two and a half counties which ought to have been transferred to the Republic in 1924. The extreme wings of the Unionists have links with the extreme right in Europe, South Africa and America. This shows itself in a liking for uniforms, military training and a hatred of other groups. They seem to be linked to the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazis and similar groups.

Could the province come under joint rule from Dublin and London? Although this sounds sensible to the outsider it would be rejected by the majority community.

The Ulster Unionist MPs at Westminster are believed to have had an arrangement to support the former Tory government (until 1997), which had a small majority and many back bench dissidents. No-one knows what their price was. The SDLP MPs usually support the Labour Party.

Elections in 1996 to a representative body to discuss change showed 15% support for Sinn Fein, similar to the ultras in the Basque Country.

A devolved assembly was elected and a power sharing executive formed in 2000. This included a wide range of parties including Sinn Fein, now committed to ending military operations. A Chief Minister, David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist party headed the executive as Chief Minister. His deputy came from the moderate Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP). This executive took over many powers from the British government but functions only with constant tension and threat of breakdown. On several occasions the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has suspended the Assembly and Executive and resumed Direct Rule - usually only for a period of days.

In December 2004 a huge bank robbery in Belfast was believed to have been carried out by the IRA. A murder by IRA members of a Catholic in a bar shed light on the nature of the IRA members, many of whom are believed to be behaving like warlords in their local areas. These incidents made a resumption of the Assembly and a power sharing government unlikely in the near future.

In the 2005 UK elections the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) lost all except one of its seats, including its leader's (Trimble). The more extreme DUP gained most of these seats. This seemed to make it less likely that a compromise Northern Ireland government (Executive) could be formed.

New Assembly elections were held on 7 March 2007. To many people's surprise the leaders of the DUP (Rev. Ian Paisley) and Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, met and agreed to set up a devolved government - an Executive representing all parties - with Paisley as Chief Minister and Martin McGuinness as deputy. Is this the end of the Troubles? Will everyone live happily ever after? It showed that even these intransigents could soften enough to cooperate. However, it required the intense efforts of numerous statesmen, including the British prime minister Tony Blair (1997-2007), ex-president Bill Clinton (while he was in office, and after), ex-Senator George Mitchell and others, including Irish prime ministers, especially Bertie Aherne.

Interesting reading

See this web site






Before Irish partition the north was the most prosperous area, with its heavy industry in Belfast - mostly ship building, and strong agriculture with the linen industry based on locally grown flax. All these industries are in decline and the south may now be the more prosperous part of Ireland. There is a high level of unemployment and considerable poverty. These may be the precipitating factors of the "troubles".

Industrialists were reluctant to invest in the province because of the risk of seeing their factories blown up by the guerrillas. The remaining heavy industry is dominated by military construction which is threatened by British cuts in the defense budget (if they occur).

The largest part of the province's income may come from British government subsidies and welfare payments. This may be the main inhibiting factor to independence but the payments irritate the British taxpayers who see nothing in return except abuse from local politicians.

The various guerrilla groups exact protection money from small and medium sized businesses in their areas. These have the same effect as Mafia exactions: they drain off profits which could be used for reinvestment, thus keeping the province poor. This also keeps new industries away. Low wages ought to attract them but the low wages also reflect the difficulty of getting anyone to employ the people.

Education is also a factor. Until recently the schools system were still organised like the English system in the 1950s: an elite system for a small select portion of the population ("Grammar Schools") and a poorer system for the majority. The result is a smaller pool of educated people than in the Republic. Moreover, many of these emigrate. However selection was abolished by the British Secretary of State during the period when the Assembly was suspended.

Since "peace" broke out the economy has been improving. Cross border activity has increased with the prosperity of the south affecting the north. Southerners are even buying property in the north and commuting across the frontier - something made much easier after the border posts were removed.

After the worldwide economic crisis the fall of the British pound means that shoppers from the south now find shops in the north cheaper.






As with the rest of Ireland the province has some of the cleanest air and water in Europe.





Human Rights

Because juries were intimidated by the guerrilla organizations, trials of "terrorist" offenses are undertaken by a single judge sitting without assessors. It is widely believed that some people are found guilty on evidence which would not satisfy a jury. The Police believe that they know the names of many terrorists but are unable to arrest them because of the difficulty of proving evidence in court.

There are allegations of police and army brutality, perhaps diminishing in recent years. The area is believed to be a training ground in anti-terrorist techniques for many western police forces.

There are also persistent allegations of a "shoot-to-kill" policy, that is, police and army killing alleged terrorists even when they are unarmed. If true, these incidents would be similar in some respects to the death squads operated in some Central American states.

There was radio and television censorship by which officials of named organizations were not allowed to speak on television or radio. (But actors could speak their words). The last also applied to the mainland. A similar ban was operated in the Republic of Ireland. These came to an end with the Good Friday Agreement.

Although there is a formal ceasefire, at grass roots gangster killings, woundings and intimidation continue. Life for many people continues to be nasty. The various political groups continue to behave like the mafia.

The author has taught in Belfast (after the Good Friday Agreement) and hopes peace will continue.

Last revised 6/04/09


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