Northern Ireland - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

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Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland, administrative division of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, situated in the northeastern portion of the island of Ireland. The remaining portion of the island is part of the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland constitutes about 17 percent of the land area of Ireland and has 31 percent of the island’s population. The capital of Northern Ireland is Belfast. Northern Ireland’s population is deeply divided along religious and political lines. The schism between the Protestant majority and the Roman Catholic minority extends deep into Northern Ireland’s past and has strongly influenced the region’s culture, settlement patterns, and politics.

By the 17th century, Protestant British settlers had subjugated the region’s Catholic, Gaelic inhabitants. The whole of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom until 1920, as the British government—faced with growing violent resistance—offered limited local government to Ireland. The island was divided into two regions, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, both under the control of the United Kingdom. Each region was granted the right to elect a local parliament while maintaining representation in the British Parliament.

When local parliamentary elections were held in 1921, the southern Irish parliament refused to recognize British control. As a result, of the original 32 counties of Ireland, the 6 northeasterly counties became a British province officially known as Northern Ireland. The remaining 26 counties became independent in 1922 as the Irish Free State (later Eire, and subsequently the Republic of Ireland). Since then, most of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland has identified with independent Ireland, and most of the Protestant majority with Britain. Catholics seeking integration with Ireland are often referred to as republicans or nationalists, while Protestants who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom are often called unionists or loyalists.

From 1921 to 1972 Northern Ireland had its own regional parliament that exercised considerable authority over local affairs. The Protestant, unionist majority dominated the parliament, which made the government unpopular with the Catholic, nationalist minority. Northern Ireland experienced a nearly continuous period of violent conflict between these two groups from the late 1960s through the mid-1990s. The violence extended beyond Ireland, as republican paramilitary groups—in particular the Irish Republican Army (IRA)—also struck targets in London and elsewhere in England. The clashes, bombings, and assassinations in this period were often referred to as “the troubles.” In 1972 the British government shut down Northern Ireland’s regional parliament and governed the region directly from London. A 1998 accord known as the Good Friday Agreement restored some powers to a new provincial government. See also Northern Ireland Conflict.

The Protestant community often refers to Northern Ireland as Ulster. Catholics seldom use this name. For most Catholics the term Ulster is used only to refer to the historic Irish province of Ulster, which consisted of the current six counties and three other counties that are now in the Republic of Ireland. Catholics tend to refer to the territory as “the north of Ireland,” and those of strongly nationalist views also use the term “the six counties.”


The total area of Northern Ireland is 14,160 sq km (5,467 sq mi), of which 628 sq km (242 sq mi) is inland water. The maximum distance from north to south is 137 km (85 mi); from east to west it is 177 km (110 mi). Northern Ireland is bounded on the north and northeast by the North Channel, on the southeast by the Irish Sea, and on the south and west by Ireland. The border with Ireland is 360 km (220 mi) long. The region’s coastline consists of wide, sandy beaches, broken by steep cliffs in the north, northeast, and southeast. Near the northernmost point of Northern Ireland is Giant’s Causeway, an unusual formation of basalt columns created by the cooling of an ancient lava flow. Rathlin Island and several smaller islands lie off the northern coast.

The different regions of Northern Ireland are frequently referred to by the names of the province’s six traditional Irish counties, even though they are no longer the units of local government. These are—clockwise from the northeast—Antrim, Down, Armagh, Fermanagh, Tyrone, and Londonderry (Derry).

The region’s topography is often described as saucer-shaped: A low-lying central area is surrounded by the Antrim Mountains and Glens of Antrim to the north and northeast, the Mourne Mountains to the southeast, the uplands of south Armagh to the south, and the Sperrin Mountains to the northwest. A number of broad river valleys run from the central region to the sea. The highest mountain is Slieve Donard (852 m/2,795 ft), located at the eastern end of the Mourne Mountains in Down.

Rivers and Lakes in Northern Ireland

Lough Neagh, in the center of Northern Ireland, is the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles, with an area of 396 sq km (153 sq mi). All the region’s counties border it except Fermanagh. Upper and Lower Lough Erne, in Fermanagh, are the only other major freshwater lakes. Belfast Lough, Carlingford Lough, Strangford Lough, and Lough Foyle are the largest sea inlets. The major river of Northern Ireland is the Bann, which rises in the Mourne Mountains and flows northward through Lough Neagh to become a wide and navigable waterway to the sea. The Foyle flows north to the sea at the port city of Londonderry (Derry), forming the border with Ireland for part of its length. The Lagan flows northeast to the sea at Belfast.

Plant and Animal Life in Northern Ireland

Wild plant and animal life is similar to that found in the northern and western parts of Britain. Sedges, rushes, ferns, and grasses are the principal plants, and rhododendrons flourish in many areas. Winters are mild and there are no regular sharp frosts, so it is also possible to grow decorative shrubs such as fuchsia and exotic imports such as those of the genus Escallonia. Wild mammals are limited to small rodents of the woods and fields, such as rabbits and stoats. There are many species of small birds. Salmon and trout thrive in Northern Ireland’s rivers and lakes, and the province is also known for a distinctive type of whitefish called the pollan, found in Lough Neagh and Upper and Lower Lough Erne.

Natural Resources of Northern Ireland

Ireland is not rich in minerals. Small-scale coal mining has been pursued sporadically at Coalisland, in central Northern Ireland, and at Ballycastle in the north. Farmers and other rural people harvest peat for fuel, but very few deposits are broad or deep enough to justify commercial exploitation. Limestone and gravel are extensively quarried. Some 6 percent of Northern Ireland’s land area is forested, much of it planted in recent times.

Climate in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s climate is temperate, with warm winters and cool summers. In January the average daily temperature is around 4°C (39°F), and in July it is about 15°C (59°F). Annual precipitation is about 1,100 mm (42 in), spread fairly evenly throughout the year. Spring is normally the driest season. Overcast skies are the norm: Average daily hours of clear skies range from less than two from November to January to around six in May and June. Northern Ireland tends to be breezy, and gales are common in spring and fall.


The total population of Northern Ireland is 1,710,000 (2004). The overall population density is 121 persons per sq km (313 persons per sq mi). The area that is now Northern Ireland was thinly populated before 1700, but the population grew rapidly from about 1750, doubling in the period from 1750 to 1790. By 1821, when the first census was taken, it had risen to 1.38 million, and the population reached 1.64 million in 1841. The region was affected to a lesser extent than other parts of Ireland by the island’s widespread potato blight and subsequent famine of 1845 to 1850. Nonetheless, the population fell sharply to 1.43 million by 1851 and continued to decline steadily as a result of emigration, dropping to a low of 1.25 million in 1911. During the 20th century the population increased slowly but steadily as a result of lower death rates, continuing high birth rates, and a decline in the rate of emigration.

Belfast is the capital and largest city of Northern Ireland. Almost half of the province’s population lives in the greater Belfast area. Founded on the sandy mouth of the Lagan River in 1613 by settlers from Britain, Belfast took its name from Beal Feirsde (Irish for “the mouth of the sandbank”). Belfast remained a small trading port until about 1800. It subsequently became a major industrial city, growing from about 20,000 people at the beginning of the 1800s to a peak of 443,671 in 1951.

Northern Ireland’s second largest city, Londonderry (Derry), is much smaller. Derry (Irish Doire, for “place of the oaks”), a small community centered around a 6th-century abbey, was rebuilt by British settlers in 1613. Soon thereafter the town granted charters to several London merchant companies to develop the area, and the official name of the city became Londonderry. This name was never fully accepted or used by Catholics, who in general still refer to the city as Derry. The city is therefore often referred to in books and other text sources as Londonderry/Derry or Derry/Londonderry.

The only other urban center designated as a city is Armagh, which is actually a small town. Armagh owes its prominence to its historic role as the center of Christianity in Ireland and the home of both the Catholic and Anglican primates of all Ireland. Major towns include the market centers of Coleraine (headquarters of the University of Ulster), Dungannon, Enniskillen, Omagh, and Strabane; the ports of Larne and Newry; and the historic linen manufacturing towns of Ballymena, Lurgan, and Portadown.

Ethnicity and Religion in Northern Ireland

The main defining components of ethnicity in Northern Ireland are religious and political affiliation. In general, Catholics/nationalists regard themselves as Irish, and Protestants/unionists regard themselves as British.

The 1991 census recorded Catholics as 38 percent of the population. However, 7 percent of the population declined to identify a religious affiliation. Therefore, most demographers agree that Catholics actually represent about 41 percent of the population. The largest Protestant groups are Presbyterians (21 percent of the total population), followed by the Anglican members of the Church of Ireland (18 percent), and Methodists (4 percent). Of the remaining 16 percent of the population, about half belong to other Protestant denominations, often of a fundamentalist and strongly political character influenced by American evangelicalism. Several of these denominations have grown in membership since the 1960s. The remaining 8 percent of the people are either members of non-Christian religions or claim no religious affiliation.

Languages spoken in Northern Ireland

Almost all residents of Northern Ireland speak English. Only a tiny percentage speak Irish, a Gaelic language, except in remote upland areas in the Glens of Antrim, the Mourne Mountains, and the Sperrin Mountains, where Irish is more widely spoken. The Catholic and nationalist community has tended to become more enthusiastic about learning Irish as a second language during periods of heightened political activity—for example, from 1900 to 1920 and from 1970 to the present day. Recent government policies and the expansion of university education have encouraged mutual respect for the two cultural traditions in the province. This has boosted the Irish language movement, as well as the rise in popularity of Ulster-Scots, or Ullans, among the Protestant community. See also Celtic Languages.

Education in Northern Ireland

Education is compulsory in Northern Ireland for all children aged 5 to 16. The great majority of students attend either state schools, which are in effect Protestant, or schools operated by the Catholic Church. The state did not fully fund Catholic schools until the 1970s. Since the 1980s the government has also funded so-called integrated schools, which endeavor to offer a curriculum equally appropriate for children of a Catholic or Protestant tradition.

The main urban centers of Northern Ireland have colleges of higher education that offer full-time and part-time study to students aged 16 to 18, as well as to adults. The province also has two universities: the Queen’s University of Belfast (founded in 1845) and the University of Ulster (founded in 1968, restructured in 1984).

Way of Life and Social Issues in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s Catholic and Protestant communities are both predominantly conservative in their social and religious outlook. Church attendance remains high, although it has been falling in recent years. Catholic and Protestant attitudes on matters of sexual morality and abortion are notably similar, although the Catholic Church’s opposition to contraception and divorce is not shared by Protestants. Divorce levels are low in comparison to those in the rest of the United Kingdom. The proportion of mixed Catholic-Protestant marriages has risen recently but remains only a small percentage of all marriages. Protestant family sizes, as elsewhere in the United Kingdom, contracted during the 20th century, but Catholic family sizes tended to remain larger. Social attitudes in rural and small-town areas are more conservative than those in the cities—urban-rural differences are probably greater than Catholic-Protestant differences in this regard.

Likewise, gender roles verge toward the conservative end of the spectrum, but there is a strong women’s movement, most visible in the province’s main urban centers. Many people believe that the decades of political violence strengthened the women’s movement in Northern Ireland. Women often came to the forefront of political life to demand peace and an end to terrorism. Two Belfast women jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for working to reconcile Northern Ireland’s religious communities.

Sports are popular in Northern Ireland. In the Catholic community Gaelic football and hurling are popular among men, and camogie (a sport similar to hurling) is popular among women. Among Protestants popular games are rugby union football (see Rugby Football), cricket, and field hockey. Association football (soccer) and golf are popular games in both Catholic and Protestant communities.

The Catholic-Protestant segregation extends to Northern Irish society in general. Urban residential neighborhoods are highly segregated. Relative social status is less skewed, but Protestants hold higher-status jobs more frequently and Catholics are somewhat more likely to be unskilled or unemployed. The Fair Employment Commission (originally the Fair Employment Agency) has statutory powers to investigate cases of alleged discrimination and patterns of ethnic imbalance in all but the very smallest companies.


Originally very similar to the rest of Ireland in terms of culture, Northern Ireland developed a distinctive cultural identity with the influx of Protestant English and Scottish people starting in the 17th century. The Catholic-Protestant schism and the associated troubles are recurrent themes in Northern Irish arts.

Literature and Performing Arts in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has experienced a literary renaissance since the early 1970s that has drawn energy and public attention both from the protracted troubles and from the worldwide distinction achieved by the region’s most distinguished writer, Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney. Northern Irish poets, dramatists, and writers have achieved distinction in Dublin and London, as well as internationally. See also Gaelic Literature; Irish Literature.

Belfast, a provincial center of heavy industry, lacked serious standing in the arts in the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, the Ulster Literary Theatre (founded in 1902) drew both Catholic and Protestant writers into the Irish revival movement that was originally inspired by Irish poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats and Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. The annual Belfast Festival, begun in the early 1960s, is now a major cultural event. The more recent West Belfast Festival has a strongly Irish and nationalist flavor. The Grand Opera House (1895), designed by architect Frank Matcham, and Waterfront Hall (1997) are major arts venues in the center of Belfast. Londonderry is home to the influential Field Day Theatre Company, founded in 1980 by a group of internationally known artists that included Heaney, dramatist Brian Friel, novelist Seamus Deane, and actor Stephen Rea.

Noted early-20th-century composer and conductor Hamilton Harty was born and educated in Northern Ireland, and many of his compositions reflect Irish themes. The most distinguished Northern Ireland instrumentalist is the Belfast-born flutist James Galway. Traditional Irish folk-singing is popular, and the best-known Northern Ireland folk singers were the three generations of The McPeake Family.

Libraries and Museums in Northern Ireland

The Ulster Museum (1892) in Belfast has a large collection of local and international art and antiquities. Also in Belfast are the Belfast Central Library (1888), the Queen’s University Library (1849), and the Linen Hall Library (1788), a private institution with important collections of books, political materials, and newspapers. The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum (1958), just east of Belfast at Cultra, is one of the oldest and most authentic cultural heritage parks in the United Kingdom. The Ulster-American Folk Park (1976) at Omagh is another major heritage center; it focuses on the experience of Irish emigrants to the United States.


The north of Ireland was heavily forested and lightly populated until the 17th century, when it began to be farmed more intensively. Farms were small, and incomes were supplemented by domestic production of linen. In the 19th century Belfast and the surrounding area became a world leader in the factory production of linen. Developments in shipbuilding and engineering followed, and industrial enterprises expanded in the period from 1850 to 1914. These heavy industries fared badly after World War I (1914-1918) and never fully recovered. Linen and shipbuilding are now small concerns.

The economy suffered considerably as a result of the post-1969 political violence. Since the 1950s Northern Ireland has been the poorest region of the United Kingdom. The economy has revived in recent years as major British retailing chains have moved into the province, and the tourism industry has begun to achieve its full potential. Most of Northern Ireland’s import and export trade is with other parts of the United Kingdom. The Republic of Ireland is the next most important trading partner.

Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing in Northern Ireland

Most farms in Northern Ireland are small. Historically they began as tenant farms owned by the landlords of large estates. By the 1920s most were owned by the farmers who worked them. Agriculture of Northern Ireland largely revolves around livestock production—cattle, pigs, sheep, and poultry are the main animals raised. Barley is the most important crop, followed by potatoes and oats. Although 20 percent of Ulster was still virgin forest in 1600, these forests had all but disappeared by 1700. Reforestation projects were not pursued until after 1945.

Salmon and trout are farmed commercially in the northern estuaries of the Foyle, Bann, and Bush rivers, and eels are farmed on the north shore of Lough Neagh. Sea fishing—mainly for herring, mackerel, whiting, and cod—operates out of the southeastern villages of Kilkeel, Portavogie, and Ardglass.

Manufacturing in Northern Ireland

The first significant manufacturing in the region was the production of linen cloth in the 18th century. Farmers across most of Ulster grew and processed flax, which was spun into linen thread and woven into linen cloth by hand. The linen was sold in Belfast and other towns, and much of it was then exported to Britain and elsewhere. Linen production was brought into factories in the 1820s. The development of the wet-spinning process (in which flax is drawn through hot water to make it more pliable) made it possible to spin flax thread by machine by the late 1820s. By the 1860s power spinning had led to power weaving of cloth, and Belfast soon became the world’s leading producer of the world-renowned Irish linen.

The province’s commercial successes enabled Belfast to be rebuilt as a major deepwater port by 1850, and it also became the northern hub of Ireland’s railway system. Belfast emerged as a commercial rival to Dublin and also provided an attractive site for the shipbuilding industry. During the 1850s the firm of Harland and Wolff began to build ships on a new, inexpensive site with capital provided by English transatlantic shipping companies. Belfast shipyards built many of the ships that conveyed British and Irish migrants to North America from 1860 to 1914. The ill-fated Titanic was built in Belfast (see Titanic Disaster).

Linen manufacturers continued to be major employers in the region until the industry’s near collapse in the 1950s. Now only small specialist companies remain in operation, producing luxury linen items. Synthetic fibers are also manufactured and woven in Northern Irish factories. Other manufactures include aircraft, textile machinery, electrical and electronic equipment, processed food, liquor, carbonated beverages, tobacco products, and chemicals.

Services and Tourism of Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is an attractive tourist destination for golfers, fishers, horseback riders, hikers, and campers. The province has many magnificent sandy beaches, although the water is too cold and the weather too unreliable for beach tourism to develop on a large scale. Some important heritage centers have been established, notably in Belfast, Londonderry, Armagh, and Omagh. These supplement Northern Ireland’s world-renowned natural attractions, the most famous of which are the Glens of Antrim in the northeast, the Mourne Mountains in the southeast, and Giant’s Causeway, a remarkable natural feature on the north coast near the town of Bushmills.

Energy in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s main sources of energy are imported oil and coal, which are used primarily to run electric power stations. Bottled propane gas is widely used for domestic heating, as are oil, coal, and peat. Natural gas from the North Sea, which has been a major source of power in Britain since the 1970s, was denied to Northern Ireland until the late 1990s owing to the high cost of laying pipes across the North Channel between Scotland and Ireland.

Transportation in Northern Ireland

The province’s railway system connects Bangor, Larne, Coleraine, and Londonderry with one another and with Dublin. The highway system is well developed. Belfast International Airport, Belfast City Airport, and Londonderry Airport have established themselves effectively in the British and Irish markets. Belfast and the nearby container port of Larne are major transshipment centers. Ferries connect Belfast and Larne to ports in Scotland.


Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which is a parliamentary monarchy and an electoral democracy. The province is represented by 18 members in the British Parliament’s House of Commons. Voting age in the United Kingdom is 18.

Northern Ireland was brought into existence in 1920 by the British Parliament’s Government of Ireland Act, which served as the province’s constitution until 1972. The pre-1972 provincial government became known as Stormont, after the suburb of Belfast where the parliamentary buildings were opened in 1932. In 1972, following three years of sectarian violence, the British government closed down the Stormont government, and Northern Ireland came under the direct rule of the British Parliament. Direct rule from Britain remained in effect until the implementation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. It was imposed again in 2002 after the IRA was accused of conducting espionage in the Stormont. Elections for the Stormont were held in March 2007, and self-rule was restored to Northern Ireland in May 2007 when a power-sharing government took office.

Provincial Government in Northern Ireland

Under the 1998 agreement, responsibility for many of the internal affairs of the province has devolved, or been passed down, from the British Parliament to a regional assembly, known as the Northern Ireland Assembly, and an executive cabinet of ministers, called the Northern Ireland Executive. Responsibility for international affairs—including most aspects of relations with the Republic of Ireland—and major taxation and policing issues remains with the British Parliament.

The Northern Ireland Assembly is a unicameral (single house) body with 108 members. The members are directly elected to five-year terms under a system of proportional representation, in which seats are awarded to a political party in proportion to the number of popular votes it receives. The assembly appoints the Northern Ireland Executive, a cabinet of ministers responsible for prioritizing executive business and developing government programs and budgets. The executive is composed of a first minister, a deputy first minister, and ten ministers responsible for different government departments. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement requires that the political make-up of the executive reflect that of the assembly.

Judiciary in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is subject to British common law. The top legal officers are the lord chancellor, the attorney general, and the solicitor general. These positions are political appointments made by the British Parliament. Since 1972 a director of public prosecutions for Northern Ireland has been responsible for bringing criminal prosecutions, while civil cases are dealt with by the crown solicitor for Northern Ireland.

The highest tier of courts is collectively called the Supreme Court of Judicature of Northern Ireland. It consists of the High Court, the Court of Appeal, and the Crown Court. There are normally ten Supreme Court judges, headed by the lord chief justice of Northern Ireland. Lower courts, which adjudicate on less serious matters, include county courts, where cases are heard before a judge and jury, and magistrates’ courts, where minor matters are dealt with summarily. There are normally 14 county court judges and 15 resident magistrates. Owing to fears of intimidation, terrorist offenses have been heard since 1972 by a judge sitting without a jury. As in all of the United Kingdom, the ultimate court of appeal is the British Parliament’s House of Lords.

Local Government of Northern Ireland

Since 1973 Northern Ireland has been divided into 26 districts, each with an elected council responsible for providing local services. The province had previously been divided into more than 80 smaller urban and rural districts. The British government reformed the system in 1973 in response to housing allocation and employment practice abuses by local councils, as well as to the gerrymandering of election boundaries in closely contested areas (see Gerrymander). These abuses contributed significantly to Catholic protests and the campaign of civil disobedience that began in the 1960s. Both Catholic- and Protestant-controlled councils were guilty of abuses, but Protestants controlled the great majority of councils.

Political Parties of Northern Ireland

Political affiliation in Northern Ireland largely divides along religious lines. The major Protestant political parties are the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The UUP is dedicated to maintaining the union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. The DUP has been more resistant to compromise with the Catholic community than the UUP and draws much of its support from Protestant fundamentalists and working-class Protestants.

The major Catholic parties are the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Sinn Fein. The SDLP is progressive on most social issues, has fraternal links with the British Labour Party, and aspires toward the long-term goal of uniting Ireland by winning the consent of the majority of people in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein is an Irish nationalist party whose goal has been to end the United Kingdom’s control over any part of Ireland and to create a unified Irish state. Sinn Fein has often been characterized as the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a paramilitary organization. There are also a number of minor parties, representing labor, the women’s movement, Protestant paramilitary groups, and dissident republicans.

Policing and Security in Northern Ireland

Policing and security in Northern Ireland are the responsibility of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), supported by the British army. Unlike police forces in the rest of the United Kingdom, the PSNI is an armed force. The police force—known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) until 2001—has never been as well-received in the Catholic community as it is in the Protestant community. When the RUC was founded in 1922, it had a Catholic membership of 21 percent, but that fell quickly. By 1970 it had slumped to 10 percent, and since then it has fallen further still. Several hundred policemen and members of the British army have been killed since the beginning of the troubles in 1969. Since 1970 membership of the RUC has not been compatible with living in a Catholic neighborhood. Following the Good Friday Agreement, a 1999 government report recommended wide changes in the RUC to make it acceptable to the Catholic community and to encourage significant Catholic recruitment.

The British army has been on active service in the province since 1969. At peak periods of civil disorder or paramilitary violence the number of troops in the province has approached 20,000, although it has normally been fewer. About 11,000 soldiers operated from more than three dozen bases and border outposts in July 2005. That month, Britain announced a two-year plan to reduce its military presence to a permanent military garrison of no more than 5,000 soldiers operating from 14 bases. However, the cutbacks were contingent on the IRA fulfilling a promise, made in 2005, to end its armed campaign and resume weapons decommissioning.

In 1969 an Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) was created within the British army. This was intended to be a locally based and mainly part-time force that would attract Catholics as well as Protestants. In practice, it did not work well in the climate of segregation and violence created by the troubles. The UDR became as Protestant-dominated as its predecessor, the B Specials, and some UDR members were convicted of offenses in connection with Protestant paramilitary organizations. In 1992 the UDR was merged into an existing regular unit of the British army to form the Royal Irish Regiment.


Northern Ireland is a modern term, brought into existence by the British Parliament’s Government of Ireland Act of 1920. Before 1920 the region was referred to as Ulster. The word Ulster derives from the Ulaid, the name of one of the Celtic dynasties of prehistory. The term is a contentious one. To Irish Catholics Ulster properly means the historic nine-county northern province of Ireland. The modern six-county territory of Northern Ireland has customarily been referred to as Ulster only by Protestants.

Gaelic Ulster

Little is known for certain about prehistoric Ireland. By around 500 BC the people of Ireland, including Ulster, were Celts, a group that dominated most of central and northern Europe in the 1st millennium BC. By the 8th century AD the inhabitants of Ireland described themselves as Gaels. According to tradition, Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland from western Europe in the 5th century AD. Downpatrick and Armagh, the centers most closely associated with Saint Patrick, are both in Northern Ireland. Christianity developed in Ireland a century earlier than it did among the Anglo-Saxons in Great Britain. For some time Irish Christianity also developed independently of mainstream Christianity in the rest of Europe, especially in matters of church organization.

The first invasion of Ireland from Britain occurred in 1169, when French-speaking Anglo-Norman lords from Wales intervened in alliance with some Gaelic lords in the southeast of Ireland. After that the English presence never really disappeared from Ireland. However, for 400 years, as the English sought to govern Ireland from Dublin, Ulster remained the most independent and Gaelic region of the country, isolated as it was by watery, wooded, and mountainous terrain.

Plantation and Conflict

At the end of the 16th century the government of England, by that time a Protestant state, sought to consolidate its power over all of Ireland. A number of Gaelic chiefs rose up against English forces, notably Ulster’s Shane O’Neill and, later, Hugh O’Neill, 2nd earl of Tyrone. Hugh O’Neill’s forces annihilated an English army in 1598, but in 1603 he was forced to submit to English authority. English law was subsequently pronounced the sole law of Ireland. No longer able to act independently, O’Neill, Rory O’Donnell, 1st earl of Tyrconnell, and dozens of other chieftains fled Ulster in 1607. The British government then confiscated the earls’ lands and instigated an organized policy of encouraging English and Scottish farmers to resettle in Ulster, a process known as the Ulster Plantation. Counties Antrim and Down were not part of the official plantation, but they experienced immigration, especially from southern Scotland, on an even larger scale.

Ulster’s Gaelic population was small, and during the course of the 17th century the incoming Presbyterian Scots and Anglican English came to outnumber them. At first, those who suffered from this change were by and large the local Gaelic elite, who lost their estates and their status. The peasant farmers who worked the land were for the most part not dispossessed in the early 17th century. In 1641, however, native Irish Catholics rose up against the Protestants. Some Protestants were massacred by Catholics, but many historians believe that the number of victims was vastly exaggerated in the accounts that reached England. The 1641 uprising became for Protestants a symbol of Catholic treachery, brutality, and intent to expel Protestants. In 1649 English forces under the command of revolutionary leader Oliver Cromwell brutally subjugated the Catholic population.

Ireland played a key role in the English Revolution of 1688, in which Protestant English forces rose up against Catholic English king James II. James II fled to France and then Ireland to rally Catholic support. In 1690 the forces of Protestant ruler William of Orange (later William III), who had assumed the English throne, invaded Ireland and defeated James II at the Battle of the Boyne. English forces subsequently repressed Irish Catholics harshly. These episodes created lasting and differing impressions in the minds of Ulster’s Catholics and Protestants. Catholics became convinced the Protestants were treacherous, brutal, and intent on taking over Catholic land. Ulster’s Protestants, on the other hand, saw William of Orange’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne as the foundation of a Protestant, unionist state to last for all time in Ireland. English Protestant rulers subsequently institutionalized Catholic subjugation in the form of the Penal Laws of the early 1700s, which placed certain restrictions on the practice of Roman Catholicism, which were harsher in theory than in practice.

Despite the growing division between Ulster’s Catholics and Protestants, during the 1700s community relations were quite good in some districts where either Protestants or Catholics constituted a large local majority of the population. In some areas, divisions within the Protestant community—between the Anglican Episcopalians of the established Church of Ireland and the Presbyterians of Scottish descent—were almost as wide as those between Catholics and Protestants, or between natives and settlers.

Nevertheless, the underlying trend in most areas, especially among the small farmers and the rural and urban working class, was toward sharp competition between Catholic and Protestant interests. Thus in the 1790s Protestants organized the Orange Order (named after William of Orange) and other secret societies to resist competition for land from a growing Catholic population. The Orange Order movement—usually referred to as the Orangemen or Orangeism—was initially supported by Anglican farmers and laborers, as well as by those landlords who saw the Order as a force for loyalty. Catholics created similar societies, such as the Defenders.

Not all new secret societies were sectarian, however. The Society of United Irishmen was a revolutionary movement founded in Dublin in 1791 to bring the democratic ideals of the French Revolution to Ireland and create an independent, religiously tolerant state. In Ulster, leadership of the United Irishmen was made up mostly of elite Presbyterians. With the help of French mercenaries, the United Irishmen instigated an uprising in counties Antrim and Down in 1798 that was intended to appeal to Irish people of all social and ethnic backgrounds. The disorganized uprising was bloody, and British forces suppressed it harshly.


The British government’s answer to the uprising of 1798 was to draw the whole of Ireland fully into the United Kingdom, by the Act of Union of 1800. The Union did not benefit Ireland as a whole. No longer a capital, Dublin declined, and the rural population grew to unsustainable levels before the potato blight and famine of 1845 to 1850 set the population trend into rapid reverse. Memory of the famine and mass emigration generated the bitterness that later underpinned nationalist fervor.

Entrenchment and Politicization

Many of Ulster’s rural areas and its nonindustrial small towns experienced the same pattern of economic collapse and downward population spiral that the rest of Ireland suffered. The Presbyterians, horrified by what had been unleashed in 1798, drew back from republicanism and embraced the politics of the Union. The Orange Order, with its overt political commitment to the Union and its central focus of opposition to Catholicism, became an important force for creating a single Protestant identity. Thus in politics, in theology, and in society, the modern ethnic division between Catholics and Protestants was gradually confirmed among the elite and the common people.

An exception to the economic and population decline that afflicted the rest of the region was the growth of large-scale factory industry in Belfast and neighboring towns and, to a lesser extent, in Londonderry (Derry). Belfast had the fastest population growth rate of any of the United Kingdom’s major industrial cities in the second half of the 19th century, growing from about 20,000 in 1800 to 386,000 in 1911. In the early 19th century, 3 percent of Ulster’s population lived in Belfast; 100 years later it was more than 30 percent.

However, Belfast’s economic growth could not provide an escape from poverty for a large portion of the city’s population, both Catholic and Protestant. These rival working-class groups lived side by side in Belfast. Rioting and intimidation became chronic in the blue-collar neighborhoods, and a tight ethnic segregation developed in housing patterns. The city also acquired a reputation for uncompromising Orangeism. Protestants continued to migrate to the city in large numbers, but new Catholic arrivals tailed off, so that the Protestant proportion of the city’s population increased from less than two-thirds to more than three-quarters in the 50 years leading up to 1911.

Prior to the mid-19th century, conflicts between the region’s ethnic groups were essentially local feuds. Only with the extension of electoral democracy did the conflicts gradually come to take on a genuinely political significance. In 1868 the British government extended voting rights in Ireland to all male heads of household in urban areas. In 1885 rights were extended to those in rural areas as well. Although women and other adult males living in a household remained excluded until 1918, the 19th century changes brought every family into the democratic process. The result was the creation of new political parties and an Irish party political culture distinct from that of Britain. At first, many Protestants and the Orange Order embraced Britain’s Conservative Party, and many elite Presbyterians remained loyal to the Liberal Party. However, by 1886 these two groups had merged to form the Unionist Party. Catholics rallied around the Home Rule Party, a nationalist movement that had been formed in the south of Ireland in the 1870s and introduced into Ulster in 1883. Only at that relatively late stage did northern Catholics come to identify their cause fully with that of all-Ireland nationalism.

Fight over Home Rule

By the 1880s Irish nationalist members constituted a large third-party bloc in the British Parliament, causing the Liberal government of 1886 to propose a bill providing home rule for Ireland. The bill was defeated in the House of Commons, and a second Home Rule Bill was defeated in the House of Lords in 1893. British Liberals nevertheless remained committed to home rule, and opposition to this policy became the cornerstone of Ulster Protestant politics. In 1905 the Ulster Unionist Council was formed as a body to coordinate loyalist activity among the Protestant business people, farmers, and workers of the north. Within five years the council had begun purchasing and stockpiling weapons, preparing to defend loyalist interests by any means necessary. This marked the formal beginning of Ulster—as distinct from all-Ireland—unionism.

The British Liberal government introduced the third Home Rule Bill in 1912. The bill passed in the House of Commons twice and was defeated in the House of Lords both times. Ulster Unionists organized massive demonstrations of resistance. In September 1912 more than 470,000 men and women signed petitions of opposition to home rule, and from 1912 to 1914 an armed Ulster Volunteer Force of 100,000 men was organized under the leadership of upper-class Protestants. Northern nationalists, who had so far limited themselves to purely parliamentary tactics, were taken aback by Protestant militarization.

In 1914 the third Home Rule Bill passed in the House of Commons for a third time; under a new British parliamentary procedure established by the Parliament Act of 1911, this rendered approval by the House of Lords unnecessary. Ulster Unionists steeled themselves for civil war against the British government, but within weeks the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918) turned all eyes to continental Europe.

The British government considered the “Irish question” to be deferred until the end of the war, but in 1916 the Easter Rebellion in Dublin brought it back to the forefront. The rebellion, organized by the then small Irish Volunteer Force, which became the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1919, was quickly, although bloodily, suppressed. The British government, however, in the hope of preventing a sympathetic rise in violent Irish militarism, made an attempt to implement Irish home rule. This entailed calling upon northern nationalists to sacrifice their own short-term interests by accepting that the six northeastern counties be temporarily excluded from the home rule settlement. They reluctantly agreed. Negotiations proceeded, but the partition of Ireland had come a step nearer. In the south, Sinn Fein, a new party closely linked to the IRA, swept the moderate home rule nationalists aside in 1918 elections to the British Parliament.

The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 proposed that both “Southern Ireland” and “Northern Ireland” have devolved parliaments for running Irish affairs, both under the ultimate authority of the British government. The parliament of Southern Ireland never met, as Sinn Fein and the IRA fought on for full independence, which it achieved as the Irish Free State in 1922. Northern Ireland, however, did come into existence in 1921. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) won 40 of the 52 seats in the new Parliament and set up a government. The situation in Belfast degenerated almost into civil war: The IRA attempted to continue its campaign in the north, and the forces of the new state acted ruthlessly to suppress opposition.

Northern Ireland Under Home Rule

Ulster unionists had sought to prevent home rule for Ireland or, failing that, to have Ulster excluded from it. Instead they found themselves governing six of the nine Ulster counties, with Belfast a capital city for the first time. The British government, having failed to persuade the unionists into a home rule Ireland, had in effect placed on them the responsibility for maintaining stable government in the northern area. Sovereign authority rested with the British Parliament, but day-to-day direction from the British government was impossible. In practice, the British government’s power was restricted to the ability to dissolve the provincial government entirely, which they ultimately did do in 1972. After a few abortive attempts to moderate local policy, the British Parliament gave the UUP government full support.

The underlying problem in the new six-county province of Northern Ireland was the sharp divide between the Protestant majority and the reluctant and resentful Catholic minority amounting to more than one-third of its population. In parts of western Northern Ireland, Catholics formed a majority. Furthermore, neither the British government nor the new Northern Irish government made any effort to achieve reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics. The political structure established in Northern Ireland by the British government emphasized majority rule and offered no encouragement to the governing party to seek out the middle ground. The Unionist government in turn made little perceptible effort to do so. Thinly veiled government rhetoric equated patriotic opposition to nationalism with anti-Catholicism and Catholicism with disloyalty. The bias was reflected in civil service hiring patterns. This Northern Irish Protestant point of view was only reinforced by the increasingly hardline rhetoric of the province’s southern neighbor.

In 1937 the Irish Free State (under the new name of Eire or, in English, simply “Ireland”) adopted a new constitution that claimed jurisdiction over the entire island of Ireland, “pending reintegration of the national territory,” and declared the Roman Catholic religion to have a special position in the state.

Differences between Northern Ireland and the independent state of Eire continued during World War II (1939-1945). The government of Eire was neutral during the war, whereas Northern Ireland supplied military personnel and produced ships, aircraft, and cloth for military uniforms for the British war effort. The ports of Belfast and Londonderry/Derry were of strategic importance to Allied shipping, and Belfast was damaged considerably by German air raids.

The British Parliament in 1949 affirmed the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom unless its own parliament decided otherwise. In 1955 the IRA began a terrorist campaign aimed at expelling British forces from Northern Ireland. Low-level terrorist acts continued through 1957 and 1958, but faded away by 1962. In 1962 the government of Ireland condemned terrorism as a means of achieving unification.

In the 1960s opposition to the government of Northern Ireland grew as Catholics witnessed the strategies and successes of the American civil rights movement on their televisions. Civil disobedience campaigns against discriminatory actions of Protestant-dominated local councils quickly found strong support in Catholic neighborhoods. This was accompanied by increased sectarian street violence. In October 1968 a peaceful civil rights march in Londonderry/Derry was violently broken up by police.

Conflict between Catholics and Protestants escalated, first in Londonderry/Derry and then in Belfast. By the summer of 1969, the police force, which was inadequate in numbers, skills, and on occasion impartiality, was unable to control the violence. In August 1969 the government of Northern Ireland requested that the British government send in the army to support the police. As the British army gradually brought civil disorder under control, the IRA began to reemerge. Catholics, who had initially welcomed the army as protectors against the Protestants, came to see the large-scale presence of British troops in Catholic neighborhoods as a hostile British occupation. As curfews and house-to-house arms searches concentrated on Catholic neighborhoods, IRA recruiting rose.

The government of Northern Ireland reformed the province’s system of local government, but the reforms failed to satisfy Catholic opinion and created an aggressive Protestant backlash that impeded further progress. In August 1971 the government introduced internment (imprisonment without trial), and 300 republicans were rounded up. The IRA campaigns continued to escalate. At the same time, recruitment rose in Protestant vigilante groups such as the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF, not directly linked with the 1912-1914 body of the same name), which targeted suspected IRA members.

Direct Rule

In March 1972 the British government insisted on taking over control of security policy, knowing that the government of Northern Ireland would resign in protest. The province then came under the direct rule of the British Parliament, pending the negotiation of new political structures acceptable to Catholics as well as to Protestants.

The British government created the post of secretary of state for Northern Ireland, with a seat in the British Cabinet, and a team of British junior ministers took over direction of Northern Ireland’s governmental departments. From then until the early 1990s Northern Ireland’s legislation passed through the British Parliament by orders in council (ordinances technically issued directly from the British monarch in consultation with members of the Cabinet) rather than as fully debated legislation. In 1983 the number of Northern Irish representatives in the British Parliament increased from 12 to 17, and in 1997 to 18. In a 1973 referendum largely boycotted by Roman Catholics, the voters of Northern Ireland chose to retain ties with Britain rather than join the Republic of Ireland.

Power-Sharing Experiment

In late 1973, after extensive debate between unionists, nationalists, and the governments of Britain and Ireland, unionist politicians reluctantly accepted a system in which unionists and nationalists shared power in a coalition government. However, many unionists bristled at the system’s “Irish dimension,” meaning the plans for joint institutions with the Republic of Ireland. A grassroots Protestant general strike (most crucially, of electrical power plant workers) and widespread intimidation forced unionist members of the government to resign. The power-sharing coalition collapsed after five months, and direct rule from London was reinstated in May 1974.

Many experts believe that the power-sharing settlement scheme failed because it sought agreement among Northern Ireland’s different political parties but excluded the Irish Republican Army and the rival Protestant paramilitaries. Without bringing these paramilitary groups to the bargaining table, internal agreements were unable to offer any short-term prospect of peace. After the collapse of the power-sharing government and a further failure in the following year, the British government gave up serious hope of achieving an internal settlement between the two groups within Northern Ireland.

Violent 1970s

The early 1970s were the bloodiest period in Northern Ireland’s sectarian violence, with a peak of 467 violent deaths in 1972. That year saw two of the most notorious incidents of the troubles. In January a regiment of British troops shot and killed 13 apparently unarmed demonstrators who had been taking part in a civil rights march in Londonderry/Derry. The shooting came to be known as Bloody Sunday, and it inspired numerous reprisal bombings. On a single July day, which in turn came to be known as Bloody Friday, the IRA detonated more than 20 bombs in Belfast, killing 9 civilians and injuring more than 100 others.

Terrorism was by no means limited to the IRA and other republican paramilitary groups, such as the Irish National Liberation Army. Terror campaigns were also carried out by the two rival loyalist organizations, the UDA and the UVF. During the Protestant general strike of 1974, groups associated with the UDA set off several car bombs in Dublin, killing dozens of people. Later that year, following the collapse of the coalition government and the return of direct rule, the IRA initiated a bombing campaign against Britain, and dozens more were killed in the bombings of several pubs in England.

The intensity of the conflict diminished somewhat in the late 1970s, but bombings continued and the number of violent deaths remained at around 100 per year, with many times that number of injuries. A stalemate appeared to have been reached between the security forces and the rival paramilitary forces, while at the same time the division between the communities of Northern Ireland remained as sharp as ever.

In 1979 the IRA murdered the uncle of British monarch Queen Elizabeth II, British naval hero Lord Louis Mountbatten, and, on the same day ambushed a party of British soldiers, killing 18 of them. Lord Mountbatten’s murder was roundly condemned. However, the IRA soon gained sympathy using a new tactic. A number of imprisoned IRA members went on hunger strikes in 1980 and 1981. Ten of them starved themselves to death, and each death set off a new cycle of violence. The hunger strikes were accompanied by a vigorous anti-British political campaign by Sinn Fein. The first hunger striker to die, Bobby Sands, had only a short time before been elected to the British Parliament from a district in Northern Ireland. Popular sympathy in the Catholic community for the IRA hunger strikers who died in prison provided a platform that elevated Sinn Fein within the Northern Irish political arena, and the party began winning parliamentary and local council seats.


In the 1980s the British government, having abandoned hope for a purely internal settlement to the troubles, began a new political strategy based on direct links between the governments of Britain and Ireland. In 1985 British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Irish prime minister Garret FitzGerald signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, under which the two governments agreed to consult regularly on major aspects of Northern Irish policy. A small secretariat (administrative department) of British and Irish civil servants was also established.

In the early 1990s the collaboration between Britain and Ireland resulted in a blueprint for a settlement. Based partly on power-sharing between the major political parties of Northern Ireland, it included an “Irish dimension” of cross-border cooperation sufficient to give full recognition to the sense of Irish identity felt by most northern Catholics, while retaining the British citizenship valued by Protestants. The plan’s prospects for success were raised by indications from the IRA, first in 1988 and then more strongly in 1993, that it was ready to end the war.

The possibility of drawing the IRA and other paramilitary groups into the political process, rather than isolating them from it, meant that lasting peace might be delivered as part of a political settlement. This was seen as a way of making concessions potentially more attractive to the unionist side. The IRA was more inclined to take this direction because its associated political movement, Sinn Fein, had become a significant political force since the early 1980s.

The IRA announced a cease-fire in August 1994, and detailed peace negotiations began. Political deadlocks in the British Parliament hindered government progress on the peace process, and in early 1996 the IRA resumed a bombing campaign against targets in Britain. An uneasy peace was maintained in Northern Ireland itself, however.

Good Friday Agreement

In May 1997 Sinn Fein had its best showing ever in British elections. Both Sinn Fein party leader Gerry Adams and his deputy, Martin McGuinness, were elected to represent Northern Ireland in the British Parliament. Their quest for office was primarily a symbolic one; both men declined to take their seats as they refused to take an oath of allegiance to the British queen. Across the United Kingdom, voters gave a landslide victory to Tony Blair and the Labour Party, bringing a new government to power in London and revitalizing the peace negotiations. After taking office, Blair declared the talks a top priority, and in June he announced that new negotiations would begin in September 1997.

The IRA renewed its cease-fire in July, and the British government dropped its demands that the IRA completely disarm before allowing Sinn Fein to participate in the talks. Sinn Fein then joined the negotiations, but progress was limited. The talks were chaired by former United States senator George Mitchell, who set April 9, 1998, as the deadline for an agreement. Although many feared the process would fall apart once again, Mitchell kept the talks on track. After an all-night negotiating session, and slightly past the deadline, the talks culminated in a historic agreement on April 10. All parties signed the Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement except the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP, led by Free Presbyterian cleric Ian Paisley, claimed that too many concessions were made to nationalists. In May the Good Friday Agreement won overwhelming public endorsement in referendums in Northern Ireland and Ireland. In Northern Ireland, 71 percent of voters approved of the agreement, and in Ireland, 96 percent approved.

The agreement required all participating paramilitary groups to declare an end to violence. In return, a program was drawn up for the release, in phases, of all convicted prisoners who belonged to groups that had declared cease-fires. The agreement effectively retained the partition of Ireland for the foreseeable future and required the government of the Republic of Ireland to remove from its constitution territorial claims to the north. The agreement received overwhelming support from Catholics and nationalists in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but a much narrower majority from Protestants. Many Protestants, particularly members of the DUP, were uneasy about the cross-border links in the agreement, the prisoner releases, and the potential inclusion of Sinn Fein in the government.

Northern Ireland Assembly

The agreement established a new parliamentary chamber for sharing power, the 108-member Northern Ireland Assembly, to be led by an executive cabinet. This assembly was authorized to take the responsibility of running most governmental departments from the British government. In elections to the assembly, held in June 1998, the UUP won the largest number of seats, followed by the SDLP. The DUP and Sinn Fein placed third and fourth, respectively. Each party was allotted seats in the executive cabinet. As head of the largest party in the assembly, UUP leader David Trimble became the new provincial government’s first minister. SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon, a Catholic moderate, was elected Trimble’s deputy first minister. In October 1998 Trimble and SDLP leader John Hume were awarded the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for their work on the Northern Ireland peace agreement. See also Northern Ireland Conflict.

Weapons Decommissioning

After 1998, the main sticking point remained the unwillingness of the IRA to decommission (surrender) its weapons and the unwillingness of many unionists to settle for less than this. The British government formally transferred power to the new provincial government in December 1999. However, the impasse over IRA disarmament repeatedly interrupted work of the provincial assembly and pushed the peace process to the brink of collapse. In February 2000 the British government suspended operation of the assembly and other power-sharing institutions and resumed direct control of the province. The suspension, which lasted until May, was announced after disarmament officials confirmed that the IRA had yet to begin decommissioning.

In July 2001, amid growing unionist hostility to Sinn Fein and the IRA, Trimble resigned as first minister and vowed not to return until the IRA disarmed. To prevent the collapse of the four-party coalition, the British government briefly suspended the assembly on two more occasions, in August and in September, to extend the deadline for resolving the impasse. Facing indefinite suspension of the assembly or new provincial elections, Sinn Fein for the first time urged the IRA to begin dismantling its arsenal of weapons. In late October the IRA announced that it had destroyed several caches of weapons, a development confirmed by the international commission overseeing paramilitary disarmament. The provincial assembly resumed operations in November. In elections to the executive, Trimble narrowly overcame the opposition of unionist hardliners and returned as first minister. Mark Durkan, who had replaced John Hume as leader of the SDLP, was elected deputy first minister.

Northern Ireland’s troubled assembly faced a new crisis in October 2002, following mounting allegations of IRA military activity and other misconduct. In early October the IRA and Sinn Fein were accused of stealing documents from British government offices in Belfast for intelligence purposes. Trimble threatened to withdraw his UUP ministers from the cabinet, forcing the government’s collapse, unless the British government undertook immediate steps to expel Sinn Fein from the body. In mid-October the British government suspended the Northern Ireland Assembly for the fourth time since Trimble’s coalition took office in 1999. The suspension, aimed at reestablishing a minimum of trust and consensus among the parties, ushered in a new period of uncertainty.

Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly went ahead in November 2003 even though the body remained suspended. The DUP made significant gains, winning 30 seats to become the party with the largest number of seats. The DUP won 3 more seats than the UUP, thereby becoming the leading unionist party in Northern Ireland. The results were also positive for Sinn Fein, which won 24 seats and replaced the SDLP as the leading nationalist party in the assembly. The DUP and Sinn Fein further secured their positions as the leading parties in Northern Ireland in the 2005 general elections to the British Parliament.

IRA Completes Decommissioning

As Sinn Fein gained leverage on the political front, the IRA came under increasing pressure to disarm. In July 2005 the IRA formally declared an end to its armed campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland. The IRA also announced it would resume weapons decommissioning, reversing its former position against disarmament that had stalled the Northern Ireland peace process. While reiterating that it remained “fully committed to the goals of Irish unity and independence,” the IRA promised to pursue “exclusively peaceful means” to achieve these goals.

In response to the announcement, Britain revealed a plan to reduce its army garrison and base network in Northern Ireland over a two-year period. Work began immediately on dismantling several observation posts, but the substantive military reductions were contingent on the IRA fulfilling its promises. In September 2005 the head of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, General John de Chastelain, announced the IRA had completed the process of decommissioning its weapons.

Self-Rule Restored

Elections for a new Northern Ireland Assembly, suspended since 2002, were held in early March 2007. The DUP won 36 of the assembly’s 108 seats, and Sinn Fein won 28. The UUP ended up with 18 seats and the SDLP with 16, marking a further decline in their popularity. Britain announced a March 26 deadline for the parties to set up a power-sharing government, with a functioning executive, or else the assembly would again be suspended. On that date DUP leader Paisley and Sinn Fein leader Adams held their first-ever face-to-face meeting and agreed to forge a joint platform for government. Britain extended to May the deadline for a power-sharing government, which would end the direct rule of Britain imposed in 2002. In April 2007 representatives from the four major political parties sat down to divide up the government ministries.

Five years of direct rule from Britain ended as longtime foes from the predominantly Protestant DUP and the largely Roman Catholic Sinn Fein took office together. Paisley was sworn in as first minister in the power-sharing government, and former IRA commander and Sinn Fein negotiator Martin McGuinness became deputy first minister. British prime minister Tony Blair and Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern, both of whom had worked hard to bring about the power-sharing accord, were present to witness the ceremony that restored self-rule to Northern Ireland. Peter Robinson of the DUP replaced Paisley as first minister in June 2008.

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