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The United Kingdom

Northern Ireland

The part of the UK known as Northern Ireland is composed of six counties of Ireland with a population of 1.8m (2011 census) that remained a part of the UK when the other 26 counties became free. Those in Northern Ireland who support its union with the UK often refer to it as Ulster or the Province, although there are 9 counties in the province of Ulster. And unionists also often refer to Britain misleadingly as the "mainland", to suggest that their part of Ireland is in fact a part of Britain.

Northern Ireland has for long undercut the British conceit of its superior way of life. In The Troubles Tim Pat Coogan told how a BBC TV programme about betting shops created fury amongst the British elite by showing a close-up of a Northern Ireland police revolver. "There was uproar for weeks afterwards, resulting in succeeding programmes being dropped" Coogan wrote. The truth that there have long been armed police in the United Kingdom did not sit well with the image that the elite has propagated.

No other part of the UK better demonstrates how weak is the UK's conception of itself as a democratic model. When all of Ireland was ruled by Britain a majority in all but four counties voted for parties that sought independence and a united Ireland. But it was not just those four counties that were denied freedom. Two where majorities wanted to be a part of free Ireland were added to the four to make a more viable entity.

Fortified police station in south Belfast
Fortified police station in south Belfast

To achieve and enforce their dominance over Catholics and nationalists, "unionist" and "loyalist" Protestants armed themselves and terrorised their opponents. Until recently many Catholics were disenfranchised and elections were gerrymandered. Systematic discrimination was practised against Catholics and the UK's only fully armed police acted as a sectarian militia keeping nationalists down. British governments for 30 years stood by while this happened.

"In all there had been 11 murders, two attempted murders, 574 cases of criminal injury, 367 cases of malicious damage and 133 cases of arson. Some 2,241 Catholics were evicted, and hundreds more lost their jobs. The reaction of the British Government when asked to intervene in these happenings in a part of the United Kingdom was that of Pontius Pilate".

Belfast in 1935 as described in Ireland in the Twentieth Century, Tim Pat Coogan

The population of the six counties is often divided by religion into Protestants and Catholics. And politically into nationalists who want a united Ireland and unionists and loyalists who prefer that the six counties continue to be a part of the United Kingdom.

Although some of the most prominent Irish nationalists have been Protestants, Irish nationalism has been seen as closely linked to Catholicism and unionism to Protestantism. Opinion polls suggest that not all Catholics in Northern Ireland want to leave the United Kingdom but most Protestants do support the union with Britain.

Originally two-thirds of the population were Protestants. By 1991 the Protestant share of the population was down to 46.5 per cent, with Catholics at 40.3%. The 2011 census showed a further decline in Protestant numbers. Only 35.7% described themselves as Protestants and 40.7% said they were Catholics. When those who said they had been brought up in one or other of the faiths were added 48% could be called Protestant and 45% Catholic.

"There's nothing like the monarch. She's the one thing that binds the union together. And what's important is she's not perceived as English."

Steven King, adviser to Unionist Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble. Quoted May 2002, The Financial Times

"The nationalists in the Six Counties were considerably underwhelmed by the Queen's Jubilee visit to the area . . . (it) had in fact heightened tensions in a divided community".

Tim Pat Coogan, The Troubles

The times have changed in other ways too. The Union flag is no longer flown outside police stations on public holidays. The police force is no longer called The Royal Ulster Constabulary. And police officers no longer have to swear their allegiance to queen Lizzie Windsor. In 2012 Belfast City Council voted to stop flying the Union flag over City Hall every day, something not done in Britain. The flag will be flown on twenty days only. This caused some loyalists to demonstrate and riot.

In May 1998 over 70% of the Northern Ireland electorate voted in favour of having a degree of governmental autonomy through an Assembly in which nationalists and supporters of union with Britain would share power. They also voted to have a council of ministers from north and south of the border to promote cross-border policy making. In December 1999 the internal government of Northern Ireland was passed from London to the Assembly. At the same time a governing executive composed of Unionist, "loyalist" and "nationalist" ministers took office. But in October 2002 the British government suspended the Assembly following claims that a Sinn Fein spy ring had been discovered in the Assembly building. The case against the alleged spies collapsed but it was not until 2007 that a new Assembly was elected.


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