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entity, under the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, along with the nominal state of Southern Ireland, which was superseded almost immediately after its creation by the Irish Free State.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 km² 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 Féin, along with a cluster of smaller non-aligned parties such as the Alliance Party and the Northern Ireland Womens 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 Féin 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 Féin.
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 UUPs 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 UUPs 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 Irelands 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 Féin 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.