NIR General Information Index

General Information

Northern Ireland,constituent part of the United Kingdom, lying in the northeast of the island of Ireland, itself located on that western continental periphery often characterized as Atlantic Europe. Northern Ireland is often referred to as the province of Ulster (and its inhabitants as Ulstermen), though it includes only six of the nine counties which made up that historic Irish entity.

Northern Ireland occupies an area of 5,452 square miles (14,120 square kilometres), about a sixth of the whole of the island, and is separated on the east from Scotland, another constituent country of the United Kingdom, by the narrow North Channel, which is at one point only 13 miles (21 kilometres) wide. The Irish Sea separates Northern Ireland from England and Wales on the east and southeast, respectively, and the Atlantic Ocean lies to the north. The southern border is with the republic of Ireland.

The People and The Language

The cultural differences that underlie many of Northern Ireland's contemporary social problems have a long and troubled history. The province has had lasting links with parts of western Scotland, strengthened by constant population movements. After the Tudor invasions and particularly after the forced settlements, or plantations, of the early 17th century, the English and Scottish elements were further differentiated from the native Irish by their Protestant faith. Two distinct and often antagonistic elements--the indigenous Roman Catholic Irish and the intrusive Protestant English and Scots--date from that period, and they have played a significant role in molding the province's development. The intrusive element dominated former County Antrim and northern Down, controlled the Lagan corridor toward Armagh, and also formed powerful minorities elsewhere.

This situation contributed to the decline of spoken Gaelic, and it is reflected in the contemporary distribution of religions. Gaelic is now only occasionally heard at a traditional entertainment, though it is taught in secondary schools and at universities. The accents given to English, however, are regionally distinctive. The northeastern dialect, dominating the former counties of Antrim and Londonderry and parts of Down, is an offshoot of central Scots dialect and reflects the latter in almost all its features. The remainder of the province, including the Lagan valley, has accents derived from England, more particularly from Cheshire, Merseyside, Greater Manchester, and southern Lancashire, as well as the West Country counties of Gloucestershire, Avon, Somerset, and Devon. The towns show more of a mixture and an overlay of standard English.


Northern Ireland has the smallest population of the countries of the United Kingdom. The population is fairly static, as migration roughly balances natural increase. The birth rate is much higher than in Great Britain. Consequently Northern Ireland has a young population, with relatively fewer older people. The population is unevenly distributed, sparse over the uplands, heavy in the valleys, and greater in the east than in the west. Since the 1950s, Belfast, like other British cities, has lost population, especially from its centre, and has shared in the decline of mainland cities.

Major Towns and Cities

The capital and largest city of Northern Ireland is Belfast, County Antrim, (population, 1991 preliminary, 279,237), which is surrounded by heavy industries including shipbuilding and textiles. The other major city in Northern Ireland is Londonderry, County Londonderry (72,334).


Northern Ireland is divided into 26 districts for the purposes of local government. Each district is run by a council responsible for a variety of administrative functions. As an integral part of Great Britain, Northern Ireland elects members (now 18) to the British House of Commons.


About two-fifths of the population is Roman Catholic, while more than one-fifth is Presbyterian, with less than one-fifth Episcopalian (Church of Ireland); Methodists and members of other sects make up most of the remainder. The distribution of Catholics and Protestants is, however, very uneven. In country districts the latter are in a majority in the north and east. Elsewhere they are in a minority, though fairly highly localized. Most towns have a Protestant majority: this is the case in Belfast, where Catholics make up less than one-third of the population. Towns remote from Belfast--Newry and Londonderry--are more than half Roman Catholic. In the towns there is a high degree of segregation of the sects, and mixing is minimal. Industrial western Belfast is split into two sectors along two axial roads. The Falls Road is as exclusively Catholic as the Shankill Road is Protestant. In many streets adjoining the boundary line, segregation is effectively complete. East Belfast has an exclusively Catholic core, but segregation is less apparent in the middle-class suburbs. Segregation increases as socioeconomic status decreases. Civil disturbances are almost always confined to locations in which segregation is highest. The proportions of the sects are changing slightly because of a differential in birth rate. In Belfast, for example, fertility rates in Catholic districts are much higher than in Protestant areas. There has been a relative decline of Protestants in the 20th century, though they have remained more or less stable in absolute numbers, and a relative and absolute increase of Catholics.


The country has two universities: Queenís University of Belfast, founded as Queenís College in 1845, and the University of Ulster, with campuses in Coleraine, Belfast, Jordanstown, and Londonderry, was established in 1984 by the merger of the New University of Ulster and Ulster Polytechnic..

The total annual university enrollment in the early 1990s was about 17,000. Two colleges, the Belfast College of Technology (1901) and the Union Theological College (1978), are in Belfast.


Until the 20th century the history of Northern Ireland formed part of Irish history as a whole. Nonetheless, a distinctive Christian culture, known by the Celtic name of Ulaid (English: Ulster), developed in the northern region from the 5th and 6th centuries onward. The earliest written sources about the history of Ulster date to the 7th century.

By the 8th century the island's clans had grouped themselves into five provinces, of which Ulster under the UÌ NÈill dynasty was the leading one until the 11th century. Norman adventurers from England, South Wales, and the European continent succeeded in establishing themselves in Ireland by the mid-12th century. But in 1205 the English king, John Plantagenet, took control and created an earldom of Ulster.

In the 16th and 17th centuries English and Scottish settlers arrived in Ireland, predominantly in Ulster, bringing with them their Protestant beliefs. Ulster's Protestant population increased still further in the 18th century when the region became a refuge of Huguenots forced to leave their homeland after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The immigrants' commercial and industrial skills contributed to the development of the linen-cloth manufacture that became the foundation for the 19th-century industrialization of Belfast and the Lagan Valley.

In 1801 the Act of Union created the legislative union of Great Britain and Ireland, under the name of United Kingdom. Yet a number of crises in the 19th century, including the Great Famine of the 1840s, built momentum for Irish Home Rule (limited self-government). The first Home Rule bill was introduced in 1886, the second in 1893, and the third and final one in 1912-14; but the outbreak of World War I postponed implementation until after the war. In 1920 the Government of Ireland Act provided for the establishment of two modestly self-governing units, one comprising 6 of Ulster's 9 counties (now Northern Ireland), the other comprising the 23 counties of southern Ireland along with 3 counties of Ulster (which together now form the Republic of Ireland). Whereas the Roman Catholic majority in southern Ireland, radicalized by the Easter Rising of 1916, now rejected Home Rule altogether in favour of outright independence, the Protestant majority in the six Ulster counties settled for Home Rule, even though they preferred union with Great Britain.

From 1921 to 1940 Northern Ireland was an openly sectarian state, controlled by the Protestant majority and ruled in their interest. The Roman Catholic minority, even though it suffered discrimination, flocked from the countryside to the industrial centres, especially Belfast, where work was available in the textile and shipbuilding industries. In the mid-1960s the fragile stability of Northern Ireland began to break. Roman Catholic civil-rights protests in 1968 sparked violent conflicts between the two groups. British troops, sent in the early 1970s to keep peace, were soon viewed by the Roman Catholic side as representatives of a foreign power. In response, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) mounted a prolonged terrorist campaign in an effort to force the withdrawal of British troops as a prelude to Northern Ireland's unification with Ireland. In 1972 the British prime minister, Edward Heath, suspended the constitution and parliament of Northern Ireland. Violence continued, though in 1994 formal talks began between the British government and the IRA in an effort to find a political solution to the country's sectarian strife.


Some good published sources on NIR history, culture and politics include:

  • Byron, Robin. Ulster: A Journey the Six Counties. Dufour, 1989. Travel guide to Northern Ireland.
  • Bruce, Steve. God Save Ulster: The Religion and Politics of Paisleyism. Oxford, 1989. Study of Northern Ireland's extreme Protestant group.
  • Gaffikin, Frank. Northern Ireland: The Thatcher Years. Zed, 2d ed., 1990. Analysis of British policy toward Ulster in the 1980s.
  • Gmelch, Sharon. Irish Life and Traditions. Syracuse, 1986. Social life and customs in the two Irelands.
  • Johnstone, Robert. Belfast: Portraits of a City. Trafalgar Square, 1991. Illustrated look at Ulster's capital.
  • Kronenwetter, Michael. Northern Ireland. Watts, 1990. Illustrated treatment for young adults.
  • MacDonald, Michael. Children of Wrath. Blackwell, 1986. ìPolitical Violence in Northern Irelandî (subtitle).
  • McVeigh, Joseph. A Wounded Church: Religion, Politics, and Justice in Ireland. Dufour, 1990. Sectarian divide between Catholics and Protestants and its effects.
  • O'Malley, Padraig. Biting at the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair. Beacon, 1990. Political prisoners in Northern Ireland.
  • Todd, Loreto. Words Apart: A Dictionary of North Ireland English. Barnes & Noble, 1990. Specialized vocabulary of Northern Ireland explained in standard English.
  • Patrick Buckland, A History of Northern Ireland (1981)
  • A.T.Q. Stewart, The Narrow Ground: The Roots of Conflict in Ulster, rev. ed. (1989)
  • T.W. Moody, The Ulster Question, 1603-1973, 4th ed. (1980)
  • Sean Cronin, Irish Nationalism: A History of Its Roots and Ideology (1980)
  • Maurice Irvine, Northern Ireland: Faith and Faction (1991)
  • Jonathan Bardon, A History of Ulster (1992).
  • M. Perceval-Maxwell, The Scottish Migration to Ulster in the Reign of James I (1973, reissued 1990)
  • Philip S. Robinson, The Plantation of Ulster: British Settlement in an Irish Landscape, 1600-1670 (1984, reissued 1994)
  • Raymond Gillespie, Colonial Ulster: The Settlement of East Ulster, 1600-1641 (1985)
  • Brian Mac Cuarta (ed.), Ulster 1641: Aspects of the Rising (1993)
  • Patrick Macrory, The Siege of Derry (1980)
  • J.C. Beckett and R.E. Glasscock (eds.), Belfast: The Origin and Growth of an Industrial City (1967)
  • David W. Miller, Queen's Rebels: Ulster Loyalism in Historical Perspective (1978)
  • A.T.Q. Stewart, A Deeper Silence: The Hidden Origins of the United Irish Movement (1993)
  • Paul Arthur, Government and Politics of Northern Ireland, 2nd ed. (1984)
  • Nicholas Mansergh, The Unresolved Question: The Anglo-Irish Settlement and Its Undoing, 1912-72 (1991)
  • R.J. Lawrence, The Government of Northern Ireland: Public Finance and Public Services, 1921-1964 (1965)
  • Paul Arthur and Keith Jeffery, Northern Ireland Since 1968, 2nd ed. (1996)
  • Padraig O'Malley, The Uncivil Wars: Ireland Today (1983, reprinted 1990)
  • J. Bowyer Bell, The Irish Troubles: A Generation of Violence, 1967-1992 (1993)
  • Paul Bew, Peter Gibbon, and Henry Patterson, Northern Ireland, 1921-1994 (1995).

Arts and Culture

In the arts and cultural life it is generally difficult to distinguish between native and imported. Few traces remain of any culture predating the Tudor invasions of the 16th century and the forced settlements of Scots early in the following century. Folk participation and recreation are periodically focused on colourful and noisy religious ceremonies and processions. In other respects, the cultural milieu of Northern Ireland is one shared with the remainder of the British Isles. The accents given to the English language represent the most obvious of the few truly distinctive regional characteristics.

Northern Ireland has an Arts Council, which encourages all aspects of the arts. Its activities tend to be concentrated in Belfast because this city alone can support ballet and opera companies. Belfast has theatres, a touring company based on the University of Ulster, a symphony orchestra, and a youth orchestra. In addition, it possesses a permanent art gallery, as does Londonderry. Ulster Television, Ltd., provides local programming in competition with the British Broadcasting Corporation. The Ulster Museum is the national museum, while the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum provides an interesting link with peasant origins in Northern Ireland.


The Ulster Unionist Party governed Northern Ireland from 1921 to 1972. More recently, the party has split into two groups; the Official Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party; the latter, led by the Reverend Ian Paisley, is opposed to any compromise on Northern Irelandís future in relation to Great Britain and is the most hostile to the Republic of Ireland. The other main political parties are the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which supports peaceful reunification with Ireland, the Alliance Party, and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the outlawed Irish Republican Army.