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Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is the smallest of the Home Nations of the United
Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland lies in
the north-east of the island of Ireland. It covers 14,139 square
kilometres (5,459 square miles), and has a population of 1,685,000
(April 2001). The capital is Belfast.

Northern Ireland was created in 1921 as a home-rule political entity,
under the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, along with the nominal state
of Southern Ireland, which was superseded almost immediately after its
creation by the Irish Free State. When the latter achieved independence,
Northern Ireland – under the procedures laid out in the Anglo-Irish
Treaty, 1921 – declined to join, and so remained part of the United
Kingdom. The majority of the population is unionist and wishes to remain
part of the United Kingdom, but a significant minority, known as the
nationalists, want a united Ireland. The clashes between both sets of
identity, and allegations of discrimination against nationalists by
unionists, produced a violent struggle by minorities within both
communities that ran from the late 1960s to the early 1990s and was
known as The Troubles. As a consequence, self-government for Northern
Ireland was suspended in 1972. Since the mid-1990s, the main
paramilitary groups have observed an uneasy ceasefire. Following
negotiations, the Belfast Agreement of 1998 provides for an elected
Northern Ireland Assembly and a ‘power-sharing’ Northern Ireland
Executive comprising representaives of all the main parties.

There is no longer any official Flag of Northern Ireland, as the ‘Red
Hand Flag’ was abolished along with the Parliament of Northern Ireland
in 1972. Unionists tend to use the Union flag and sometimes the Red Hand
Flag, while Nationalists typically use the Flag of Ireland. Both sides
also occasionally use the flags belonging to their political parties and
other secular and religious organizations they belong to.[1]
(http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/images/symbols/flags.htm) Some groups, including
the Irish Rugby Football Union have used the Flag of St. Patrick as a
symbol of Ireland which lacks the same nationalist or unionist
connotations, but even this is felt by some to be a loyalist flag, and
no universally acceptable symbol has yet been found. Similarly, there is
no longer a national anthem; A Londonderry Air was the national anthem.

With its improved international reputation, Northern Ireland has
recently witnessed rising numbers of tourists who come to appreciate the
area’s unique heritage. Attractions include cultural festivals, musical
and artistic traditions, countryside and geographical sites of interest,
pubs, welcoming hospitality and sports (especially golf and fishing).

Northern Ireland was covered by the ice sheet for most of the last ice
age and on numerous previous occasions, the legacy of which can be seen
in the extensive coverage of drumlins in Counties Fermanagh, Armagh,
Antrim and particularly Down. The centrepiece of Northern Ireland’s
geography is Lough Neagh, at 392 km? the largest freshwater lake in the
British Isles. A second extensive lake system is centred on Lower and
Upper Lake Erne in Fermanagh.

There are substantial uplands in the Sperrin Mountains (an extension of
the Caledonian fold mountains) with extensive gold deposits, granite
Mourne Mountains and basalt Antrim Plateau, as well as smaller ranges in
South Armagh and along the Fermanagh/Tyrone border. None of the hills is
especially high, with Slieve Donard in the dramatic Mournes reaching 848
metres, Northern Ireland’s highest point. The volcanic activity which
created the Antrim Plateau also formed the eerily geometric pillars of
the Giant’s Causeway.

The Lower and Upper River Bann, River Foyle and River Blackwater form
extensive fertile lowlands, with excellent arable land also found in
North and East Down, although much of the hill country is marginal and
suitable largely for animal husbandry.

The valley of the River Lagan is dominated by Belfast, whose
metropolitan area includes over a third of the population of Northern
Ireland, with heavy urbanisation and industrialisation along the Lagan
Valley and both shores of Belfast Lough.

The whole of Northern Ireland has a temperate maritime climate, rather
wetter in the west than the east although cloud cover is persistent
across the region. The weather is unpredictable at all times of the
year, and although the seasons are distinct they are considerably less
pronounced than in interior Europe or the eastern seaboard on North
America. Average daytime maximums in Belfast are 6.5?C in January and
17.5?C in July. The damp climate and extensive deforestation in the 16th
and 17th Centuries results in much of the region being covered in rich
green grassland.

The area now known as Northern Ireland has had a diverse history. From
serving as the bedrock of Irish nationalism in the era of the
plantations of Queen Elizabeth and James I in other parts of Ireland, it
became itself the subject of major planting of Scottish settlers after
the Flight of the Earls in 1605 (when the native governing and military
nationalist elite left en masse). Today, Northern Ireland comprises a
diverse patchwork of community rivalries, represented in some areas by
whole communities where lamp posts and some homes fly the Irish national
flag, the tricolour, or the Union Flag, the symbol of British identity,
while even the kerbstones in less affluent areas get painted
green-white-orange or red-white-blue, depending on whether a local
community expresses nationalist/republican or unionist/loyalist
sympathies.

The vast majority of the population of Northern Ireland identifies with
one of two different groups, unionists and nationalists. Both
communities are often described by their predominant religious
attachments, particularly by media outside Northern Ireland. Unionists
are predominantly Protestant (the major Protestant faith is
Presbyterianism, the second in terms of size is the Church of Ireland),
while nationalists are predominantly Roman Catholic. However, contrary
to widespread belief, not all Roman Catholics necessarily support
nationalism, and not all Protestants necessarily support unionism. It is
also important to note that, in parallel with other parts of Europe, the
proportion of the population practising their religious beliefs has
fallen dramatically in recent decades, particularly among Catholics and
adherents of mainstream Protestant denominations. This has not
necessarily resulted in a weakening of communal feeling.

Once established under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, Northern
Ireland was structured geographically so as to have a unionist majority,
unionist fears as to what would happen to them forming the basis for
their opposition to a united Ireland, which led to creation of the two
Irish states. However, the Roman Catholic population has increased in
percentage terms within Northern Ireland, while the Presbyterian and
Church of Ireland population percentages have decreased.

Most Northern Irish Catholics support reunification, although opinion
polls have shown a sizable minority who support remaining part of the
UK, usually while continuing to support nationalist political parties.
This proportion has slowly but steadily declined over the past fifteen
years to around 20% in most polls. The proportion of Protestants who
wish to join the Republic is smaller, at 3-5%, but stable. There are
also considerable numbers of people, especially Catholics, who give
ambiguous answers to questions about the future constitutional status of
Northern Ireland.

While elections in Northern Ireland are often characterised as
mini-referenda on the constitutional question, this is too simplistic an
analysis. Voters may also perceive voting to be about strengthening the
hand of their section of the community within Northern Ireland, or about
gaining advantage for their social class.

Generally speaking, one can characterise the party system in Northern
Ireland as a composite of two overlapping party systems. Nationalists
choose between the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Sinn
Fein, along with a cluster of smaller non-aligned parties such as the
Alliance Party and the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition. Unionists
choose between the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Democratic
Unionist Party (DUP), the above mentioned non-aligned parties and some
smaller, often paramilitary-linked, unionist parties.

Sinn Fein is a radical socialist revolutionary party, theoretically
committed to espousing an all-Ireland Socialist Republic, and linked
with the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Traditionally the party of
the urban Catholic working-class and a number of rural areas, since the
IRA ceasefires of the mid-1990s it has expanded its base considerably,
and has overtaken the long-dominant SDLP in terms of vote share. The
experience of government has also blunted the edge of the party’s
revolutionary enthusiasms. Sinn Fein’s MEPs sit in the European United
Left — Nordic Green Left group in the European Parliament although are
not full members of it.

The SDLP are a nominally social democratic party and a full member of
the Party of European Socialists and Socialist International. However,
as the Northern Irish party system is not based on socio-economic
divisions, it inevitably attracts a wider spectrum of opinion and has a
middle-class support base. The SDLP supports Irish reunification, but
reject utterly the use of violence as a means to that end. The SDLP has
lost considerable support in the past decade, and there seems to be a
struggle within the party between those who wish to see it adopt a
post-Nationalist agenda and those who wish to move onto more Nationalist
ground to take on Sinn Fein.

Similarly, on the Unionist side of the political spectrum, the more
radical DUP has overtaken the traditionally dominant Ulster Unionists in
recent elections. The Ulster Unionists were historically a cross-class
massenpartei who formed the government of Northern Ireland from its
creation until 1972, although since the rise of the DUP in the 1970s
their support has been more middle-class. Until 1972 the UUP’s members
of the House of Commons took the Conservative Party whip, although for
the past 32 years they have sat as a party in their own right. The UUP’s
member of the European Parliament belongs to the European People’s Party
group.

The DUP are a more complex mixture than the other major parties –
combining support from rural evangelicals and from urban, secular,
working-class voters. The party is firmly to the right on issues such as
abortion, capital punishment, European integration and equal
opportunities, although the party seems to be moderating its stance on
gay rights. Conversely, the DUP often support social programmes which
benefit their working class or agricultural base, for example, free
public transport for the elderly and European Union agricultural
subsidies. The DUP have grown in recent years as they are the only major
party to oppose the Good Friday Agreement. Their MEP sits as an
Independent in the European Parliament, but is perceived to be close to
the Independence & Democracy group.

The smaller Progressive Unionist Party and New Ulster Political Research
Group are linked with the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence
Association respectively. The UK Unionist Party is essentially a one-man
show led by Robert McCartney MLA for North Down.

Among the cross-community parties, the Alliance Party draws its support
mainly from middle-class professionals in the suburbs of Belfast. It
professes to be the only significant party which does not base its
political stance around the constitutional question, and is a member of
the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party and Liberal
International.

The future of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition is in doubt after
they lost both of their seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly. This
feminist party drew support predominantly from middle-class
professionals, and not exclusively from women, particularly among those
working in the public or voluntary sectors.

Other parties who contest elections in Northern Ireland include the
Green Party, the Workers Party and the Northern Ireland branch of the
Conservative Party.

There are also two tiny parties seeking independence for Northern
Ireland, although this is often perceived to be an ethnically Protestant
or Unionist ideal with little real support.

Some commentators believe there are indications that the religious and
ethnic basis of the party system may start to disintegrate. For example,
in the 1998-2003 Assembly, there was a Catholic member of the Ulster
Unionist Party. The SDLP have had a number of Protestant representatives
in the past. However, these tend to be one-off events, which have
occurred periodically throughout Northern Ireland’s history without
setting a trend – cf. Sir Denis Henry in the early part of the 20th
Century. In any event, social class is an important part of competition
within the main ethnic political blocs, and class-based party structures
in other established democracies have weakened since the end of the Cold
War. Since the beginning of the peace process, the non-ethnic parties
have declined, while the more radical Sinn Fein and DUP have prospered.

Optimists counter that, in the long-term, as the constitutional question
may become less relevant due to the emergence of the European Union, and
therefore a less sectarian political system may develop.

The dialect of English spoken in Northern Ireland shows heavy influence
by that of Scotland, thereby giving it a distinct accent compared to
other forms of Hiberno-English, along with the use of such Scots words
as wee for ‘little’ and ay for ‘yes’. Some jocularly call this version
of Hiberno-English phonetically by the name Norn Iron. There are minute
differences in pronunciation between Protestants and Catholics, the best
known of which is the name of the letter h, which Protestants tend to
pronounce as «aitch», as in British English, and Catholics tend to
pronounce as «haitch», as in Hiberno-English. However, geography is a
much more important determinant of dialect than ethnic background.
English is by far the most widely spoken language in Northern Ireland.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, Irish and Scots have official
recognition on a par with that of English. Traditionally, the use of the
Irish language in Northern Ireland has met with the considerable
suspicion of Unionists, who associated it with the overwhelmingly
Catholic Republic of Ireland, and later with republicans.

Ulster Scots comprises varieties of the Scots language spoken in
Northern Ireland. Many claim it has become a separate language,
descended from Scots in Scotland, whereas others question whether Scots
is a separate language from English at all, or simply a collection of
local dialects of Scottish and Northern Ireland Hiberno-English.

Chinese and Urdu are also spoken by Northern Ireland’s Chinese and Asian
communities. Given the size of the Chinese community in Northern
Ireland, Chinese is now the second most widely spoken language,
according to the most recent census returns.

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