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Since 1998, Northern Ireland has devolved government within the United Kingdom. The government and Parliament of the United Kingdom are responsible for reserved and excepted matters. Reserved matters are a list of policy areas (such as civil aviation, units of measurement, and human genetics), which the Westminster Parliament may devolve to the Northern Ireland Assembly at some time in future. Excepted matters (such as international relations, taxation and elections) are never expected to be considered for devolution. On all other matters, the Northern Ireland Executive together with the 90-member Northern Ireland Assembly may legislate and govern for Northern Ireland. Additionally, devolution in Northern Ireland is dependent upon participation by members of the Northern Ireland Executive in the North/South Ministerial Council, which co-ordinates areas of co-operation (such as agriculture, education and health) between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly are by single transferable vote with five representatives (Members of the Legislative Assembly, MLAs) elected from 18 parliamentary constituencies. Eighteen representatives to the lower house of the British parliament (Members of Parliament, MPs) are elected from the same constituencies using the first-past-the-post system. However, not all of these take their seats. The seven Sinn Féin MPs refuse to take the required oath to serve Queen Elizabeth II. In addition, the upper house of the UK's parliament, the House of Lords, currently has some 25 appointed members from Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Office represents the British government in Northern Ireland on reserved matters. The Government of the Republic of Ireland also has the right to "put forward views and proposals" on non-devolved matters in relation to Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Office is led by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who sits in the Cabinet of the United Kingdom.
Much of the population of Northern Ireland identifies with one of two different ideologies: unionism (which wants the region to remain part of the United Kingdom) and Irish nationalism (which wants a united Ireland). Unionists are predominantly Ulster Protestant, most of whom belong to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Church of Ireland. Irish nationalists are almost wholly Roman Catholic. There is also a small minority of Ulster nationalists (those who want an independent Northern Irish state), whose religious convictions vary.
Northern Ireland currently has the following political representation:
Voting patterns break down as follows:
In all elections in Northern Ireland the single transferable vote system of proportional representation is used except for the House of Commons elections where a "first past the post" or plurality voting system is used.
Sinn Féin, currently the biggest of the nationalist parties in Northern Ireland, has campaigned for a broadening of the franchise of Northern Ireland voters to allow them to vote in elections to choose the President of Ireland. It had also demanded that all Northern Ireland Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and MPs be allowed speaking rights in the lower house of the parliament of the Republic of Ireland, Dáil Éireann. It was given to understand that the Irish government accepted this and had plans to introduce legislation in the autumn of 2005.The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) backed the move. However, a spokesman for Taoiseach Bertie Ahern later rowed back, stating that it had never been intended that the MPs have a right to attend plenary sessions of the Dáil, but that they would be invited to participate in Oireachtas committees dealing with Northern Ireland matters, and only if there was all-party agreement behind it. The unionist parties, along with Fine Gael, Labour and the Progressive Democrats have all declared their opposition to the move, as has much of the Irish media, with articles highly critical of the proposal published in The Irish Times and the Sunday Independent . Nonetheless on 22 November 2007, representatives from both Sinn Féin and the SDLP, (unionists declined the invitation) attended a meeting of the Oireachtas committee reviewing the workings of the Good Friday Agreement. The 18 Northern Ireland MPs can take part in this committee's debates (as well as other relevant committees by invitation), but will not have a right to vote or to move motions and amendments.
Political parties in Northern Ireland can be divided into three distinct categories:
The Ulster Unionist Party was historically a cross-class Volkspartei who ran the Northern Ireland Government in a dominant-party system from its creation until 1972, although since the rise of the DUP in the 1970s, its support has been concentrated more in the middle class. Until 1972 the UUP's members of the British House of Commons took the Conservative Party whip, but currently sit as a party in their own right. The UUP's member of the European Parliament had belonged to the European Conservatives and Reformists Group.
The DUP are a more complex mixture than the other major parties, combining support from rural evangelicals and 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 it seems to be moderating its stance on gay rights since the "Save Ulster from Sodomy" campaign of the 1980s. 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 were originally the only major party to oppose the Good Friday Agreement, although until September 2015 they were part of a government operating it.
The smaller, left-leaning Progressive Unionist Party and Ulster Political Research Group are linked with the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association respectively.
Similarly, on the nationalist side of the political spectrum, Sinn Féin has overtaken the traditionally dominant SDLP in recent elections. Sinn Féin is a left-wing Irish republican party, committed to espousing an all-Ireland republic. Traditionally the party of the urban Catholic working class and a number of republican 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 SDLP are a nominally social democratic party and a full member of the Party of European Socialists and Socialist International. However, as the Northern Ireland party system is not based on socio-economic divisions, it attracts a wide spectrum of opinion and has a middle class support base. The SDLP support Irish reunification, but utterly reject the use of violence as a means to that end. The SDLP has lost considerable support in the past decade, with the retirement of key figures such as former leader John Hume and deputy leader Seamus Mallon and the IRA's cessation of violence. The party has members who wish to follow an agenda focusing primarily on "bread and butter issues" (taxation, employment, education, health, etc.) and those who wish to follow a more nationalist campaign to challenge Sinn Féin.
Unlike in unionism, religion is—according to the study of Evans and Duffy—not a major factor in patterns of nationalist parties' supporters (although Sinn Féin supporters tend to be more secular). Age has a strong impact on party choice: the more radical Sinn Féin has more support among the young than the SDLP has. The most important factor is attachment to nationalist ideology: Sinn Féin has high levels of support among people strongly committed to nationalism
Among the cross-community parties, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland 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. The party has strong links with the Liberal Democrats in Britain and is a member of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party and Liberal International.
Other parties who contest elections in Northern Ireland include the Green Party, the Workers' Party and the Northern Ireland branch of the Conservative Party. The feminist Northern Ireland Women's Coalition briefly held seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, but is now defunct. Ulster Third Way was a small grouping advocating independence for Northern Ireland.
Fianna Fáil, the second-largest party in the Republic, opened a cumann (branch) in Derry, and began recruiting at Queens University Belfast. The leadership as of 2005 [update] had decided not to take part in electoral politics in Northern Ireland, however in the latter part of 2007 the Taoiseach said his party was consulting its grassroots on the possibility of contesting elections in the North, and that in advance of this Fianna Fáil had registered as a political party in Northern Ireland. Some, within both Fianna Fáil and the SDLP (including former SDLP European elections candidate Martin Morgan) have advocated an alliance, or even a merger, between both parties. However, many in both parties are hostile to the idea, with some in the SDLP pointing out the left-wing links between the party and the Irish Labour Party.
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 Legislative Assembly sitting for the Ulster Unionist Party. The SDLP have had a number of Protestant representatives in the past and a Protestant SDLP councillor defected to Sinn Féin in 2004. Up to now, these have been 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,[ citation needed ] and class-based party structures in other established democracies have weakened since the end of the Cold War.
There are indications that party stances on issues like same-sex marriage are causing people who feel strongly about these issues to vote accordingly, rather than on the constitutional issue.
Once established under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, Northern Ireland, since it was an approximation of that area where those favouring remaining part of the UK were in the majority, was structured geographically in a way which guaranteed a unionist majority in the Parliament of Northern Ireland.
The proportion of people claiming to be Roman Catholic in the Northern Ireland Census has increased since the 1920s,although the rate of this increase has slowed in recent years. In contrast, the proportion of people claiming to be Presbyterian and Church of Ireland in the census has decreased. A Catholic plurality over Protestants is predicted by the time of the 2021 census, with Catholics dominant to the west and south of Northern Ireland, while Protestants are expected to retain a majority primarily to the east and north. The anticipated Catholic plurality is based on the assumption that the current trends of demographic change will continue, but at a slower rate than previously. The last 20 years have seen a 10.5% reduction in the proportion of the population who state they are Protestant or brought up Protestant (from 58.5% to 48%), and a 3.5% increase in those of who state they are Catholic or brought up Catholic (from 41.5% to 45%).
Between the 2001 and 2011 censuses there was an unprecedented wave of migration into Northern Ireland following the accession of eight countries into the EU. Since 2004, Northern Ireland has welcomed a disproportionate number of A8 citizens (particularly Polish citizens) compared with the rest of the UK.Most of these new migrants from the A8 countries were Catholic. Of the entire Catholic population in the 2011 census, 3.1% were born in an A8 country. In the 2011 census 1.24% of the population of Northern Ireland were Catholics born in an A8 country. In comparison, between the 2001 and 2011 censuses the proportion of the total population claiming to be Catholic only increased by +0.50% (from 40.26% to 40.76% ). The period of this migration, from 2004 onwards, did not correspond with any rise in the share of the vote for nationalist political parties.
The religious affiliations, based on census returns, have changed as follows between 1961 and 2002:
|Church of Ireland (Protestant)||24.2%||17.7%||15.3%||13.7%|
|Other religions (including other Protestant)||9.3%||11.5%||9.9%||9.6%|
The religious affiliations in the different districts of Northern Ireland were as follows. The "Protestant and other Christian" category includes groups such as Quakers that are not associated with either Unionism or Republicanism in Northern Ireland.
|Catholic||Protestant and other Christian||Other||Catholic||Protestant and other Christian||Other|
|Newry and Mourne||75.9%||16.4%||7.7%||72.1%||15.2%||12.7%|
|All other Christian||53.1%||48.4%|
According to a 2018 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey carried out by Queens University Belfast and Ulster University, 62% supported remaining part of the United Kingdom via devolved government or direct rule, with support for leaving the UK and forming a united Ireland at 19%. In terms of religion, 39% of Northern Ireland Catholics supported remaining part of the United Kingdom via devolved government or direct rule, usually while also supporting nationalist political parties.The proportion of Catholics supporting a united Ireland was 39% according to the same poll. The proportion of Protestants in the study who wished to join the Republic was 5%, with 83% preferring to remain in the United Kingdom in some form. There are also considerable numbers of people who give ambiguous answers to questions about the future constitutional status of Northern Ireland. Some nationalists have historically sought a favourable arrangement for Ireland within the United Kingdom. Some Protestants (such as paramilitaries and their supporters) usually term themselves as loyalists as well as unionists. As a result, the term "loyalist" has become less popular among unionists in recent decades, especially with unionist politicians. 4% of Catholics and 1% of Protestants supported independence for Northern Ireland as part of the same survey. Support for this, while fluctuating, is regarded as insignificant.
Elections in Northern Ireland are often characterised as mini-referendums on the constitutional question. 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.
In 2016 an Ipsos Mori poll asked "If there was a referendum on the border tomorrow would you:" and the answers for different regions of Northern Ireland were as follows,
|Belfast City||Greater Belfast||Down||Armagh||Tyrone/Fermanagh||Londonderry||Antrim|
|Vote to stay in the United Kingdom||65%||77%||57%||50%||51%||53%||72%|
|Vote for Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland outside the United Kingdom||17%||10%||27%||41%||28%||28%||17%|
|Would not vote||0%||3%||3%||2%||2%||2%||6%|
The same poll recorded answers from people in different age groups as follows,
|Vote to stay in the United Kingdom||67%||63%||51%||57%||60%||77%|
|Vote for Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland outside the United Kingdom||19%||19%||30%||28%||22%||14%|
|Would not vote||2%||3%||1%||2%||6%||2%|
Answers from people of different religious backgrounds were as follows,
|Vote to stay in the United Kingdom||88%||37%||51%|
|Vote for Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland outside the United Kingdom||5%||43%||15%|
|Would not vote||2%||2%||4%|
In Northern Ireland, national identity is complex and diverse. Many in Northern Ireland have a British national identity seeing the English, Scots and Welsh as fellow members of their common nation while seeing those from the Republic of Ireland as foreigners. Many others in Northern Ireland see those from the Republic of Ireland as being members of their common nation encompassing the island of Ireland and see the English, Scots and Welsh as foreigners. Co-existing with this dichotomy is a Northern Irish identity which can be held alone or, as is also the case with Englishness, Scottishness and Welshness, alongside a British identity, or alongside an Irish identity. A small number of people see themselves as being both British and Irish.
While there is a strong correlation in Northern Ireland between religious background and the perception of which geographical area forms the nation to which that person feels they belong, it is not a strict relationship and national identity is not simply distributed proportionally in accordance with the percentages of different religions in a particular area. For example, Catholics overall are almost five times more likely to view themselves as being British only, than Protestants are to view themselves as being Irish only. In the 2011 census there were four of the twenty-six districts in Northern Ireland, all on the eastern seaboard, where Catholics were more likely to view themselves as being British than Irish: Carrickfergus, Larne, North Down, and Ards; whereas even in those districts where Protestants were most likely to view themselves as Irish, such as Derry, Fermanagh and Newry and Mourne, Protestants were still more than ten times more likely to view themselves as British than Irish.
While in the 2011 census Protestants outnumbered Catholics in only half of the districts in Northern Ireland, those who considered themselves British outnumbered those who considered themselves Irish in twenty of the twenty-six districts. This is partly because Catholics were more likely to see themselves as British than Protestants were to see themselves as Irish, but is also partly because those of no religion were substantially more likely to see themselves as British as see themselves as Irish.
In the 2011 census respondents gave their national identity as follows.
|English, Scottish or Welsh|
National identity by religion
|National Identity||All||Catholic||Protestant and other Christian||Other religions||No religion|
|English, Scottish or Welsh||1.6%||0.8%||1.5%||2.9%||5.2%|
Detail by religion
|National identity||All||Catholic||Protestant and other Christian||Other religions||No religion|
|Northern Irish only||20.9%||26.9%||14.5%||12.0%||23.7%|
|British and Northern Irish only||6.2%||0.9%||11.1%||3.3%||7.9%|
|Irish and Northern Irish only||1.1%||2.0%||0.2%||0.5%||0.8%|
|British, Irish and Northern Irish only||1.0%||0.8%||1.0%||1.0%||2.1%|
|British and Irish only||0.7%||0.8%||0.5%||0.7%||1.0%|
|English, Scottish or Welsh only||1.0%||0.6%||0.8%||2.1%||3.5%|
National identity by district
|District||British||Irish||Northern Irish||English, Scottish or Welsh||All Other|
|Newry and Mourne||20.2%||53.0%||27.6%||1.2%||4.3%|
National identity by religion or religion brought up in for each district
|District||Catholic||Protestant and other Christian||Other Religion or None|
|British||Irish||Northern Irish||All Other||British||Irish||Northern Irish||All Other||British||Irish||Northern Irish||All Other|
|Newry and Mourne||7.1%||64.7%||28.0%||5.0%||76.3%||5.8%||26.8%||3.8%||34.6%||22.8%||22.1%||28.9%|
National identity by age
|Ages attained (years)||British||Irish||Northern Irish||English, Scottish or Welsh||All other|
|0 to 15||45.1%||31.4%||30.5%||0.9%||3.6%|
|16 to 24||44.2%||32.3%||29.6%||1.5%||3.3%|
|25 to 34||40.5%||31.0%||30.0%||1.7%||8.6%|
|35 to 44||47.3%||28.7%||29.3%||2.1%||4.5%|
|45 to 54||50.8%||28.3%||28.0%||1.9%||2.2%|
|55 to 64||54.5%||24.9%||28.8%||1.9%||1.1%|
|65 to 74||57.5%||21.3%||29.8%||1.7%||0.4%|
|75 to 84||58.6%||19.6%||29.1%||1.6%||0.3%|
|85 and over||61.7%||18.0%||26.5%||2.0%||0.2%|
National identity and constitutional preference
Like the relationship between religion and national identity, the relationship between national identity and constitutional preference—whether Northern Ireland should stay part of the United Kingdom or become part of a united Ireland state—presents a strong correlation, but not an absolute one. In 2016 an Ipsos Mori poll asked "If there was a referendum on the border would you:" and responses sorted by national identity were as follows:
|National Identity||British only||Irish only||Northern Irish only||Other|
|Vote to stay in the United Kingdom||86%||31%||62%||61%|
|Northern Ireland to be joined with the Republic of Ireland outside of the United Kingdom||4%||56%||18%||13%|
|Would not vote||3%||1%||2%||5%|
A 1997 publication by Democratic Dialogue financed by the Central Community Relations Unit of the Northern Ireland Office stated, "It is clear that many in Northern Ireland are willing to tolerate the Other's cultural identity only within the confines of their own core ideology... most nationalists have extreme difficulty in accepting unionists' Britishness or, even if they do, the idea that unionists do not constitute an Irish ethnic minority which can ultimately be accommodated within the Irish nation." Discussion may be hindered by the lack of definitions which command cross-community support. For example, with regard to "Irishness," the 1997 publication stated that "Irishness is a highly contested identity, subject to fundamentally different nationalist and unionist perceptions which profoundly affect notions of allegiance and group membership."
Four polls taken between 1989 and 1994 revealed that when asked to state their national identity, over 79% of Northern Ireland Protestants replied "British" or "Ulster" with 3% or less replying "Irish", while over 60% of Northern Irish Catholics replied "Irish" with 13% or less replying "British" or "Ulster."
Many people in Northern Ireland consider themselves both British and Irish, or hold some other combination of identities, as can be seen in the annual results of the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey. In 1999, for example, the survey found that 91% of Roman Catholics and 48% of Protestants thought of themselves as strongly or weakly Irish.At the same time, 55% of people who declared themselves to be neither Protestant nor Catholic (and this would have included people of Protestant or Roman Catholic backgrounds as well as people of other faiths, none and immigrants) thought of themselves as strongly or weakly Irish.
|Strongly or weakly||36%||96%||83%||70%|
|Not at all||62%||4%||15%||28%|
|Strongly or weakly||91%||48%||55%||65%|
|Not at all||9%||51%||43%||33%|
|Strongly or weakly||38%||83%||61%||63%|
|Not at all||61%||16%||35%||36%|
|Strongly or weakly||72%||85%||78%||78%|
|Not at all||28%||15%||20%||21%|
Note: percentages may not total 100 due to rounding.
The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) is a social-democratic, Irish nationalist political party in Northern Ireland. The SDLP currently has 12 MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly and two MPs in Westminster.
Northern Ireland is one of the four countries of the United Kingdom,, situated in the north-east of the island of Ireland. It was created as a separate legal entity on 3 May 1921, under the Government of Ireland Act 1920. The new autonomous Northern Ireland was formed from six of the nine counties of Ulster: four counties with unionist majorities – Antrim, Armagh, Down, and Londonderry – and two counties with slight Irish nationalist majorities – Fermanagh and Tyrone – in the 1918 General Election. The remaining three Ulster counties with larger nationalist majorities were not included. In large part unionists, at least in the north-east, supported its creation while nationalists were opposed.
Unionism in Ireland is a political tradition on the island that professes loyalty to the Crown and Constitution of the United Kingdom. The overwhelming sentiment of a once ascendant minority Protestant population, in the decades following Catholic Emancipation (1829) it mobilised to oppose the restoration of an Irish parliament. As "Ulster unionism," in the century since Partition (1921), its commitment has been to the retention within the United Kingdom of the six Ulster counties of Northern Ireland. Within the framework of a peace settlement for Northern Ireland, since 1998 unionists have reconciled to sharing office with Irish nationalists in a devolved administration, while continuing to rely on the connection with Great Britain to secure their cultural and economic interests.
The Irish general election of 1918 was that part of the 1918 United Kingdom general election which took place in Ireland. It is now seen as a key moment in modern Irish history because it saw the overwhelming defeat of the moderate nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), which had dominated the Irish political landscape since the 1880s, and a landslide victory for the radical Sinn Féin party. It had never stood in a general election, but had won six seats in by-elections in 1917–18. Sinn Féin had vowed in its manifesto to establish an independent Irish Republic. In Ulster, however, the Unionist Party was the most successful party.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement was a 1985 treaty between the United Kingdom and Ireland which aimed to help bring an end to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The treaty gave the Irish government an advisory role in Northern Ireland's government while confirming that there would be no change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland unless a majority of its people agreed to join the Republic. It also set out conditions for the establishment of a devolved consensus government in the region.
The Northern Ireland peace process is often considered to cover the events leading up to the 1994 Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) ceasefire, the end of most of the violence of the Troubles, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and subsequent political developments.
Irish republicanism is the political movement for the unity and independence of Ireland. Irish republicans view British rule in any part of Ireland as inherently illegitimate.
West Tyrone is a parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom House of Commons. The current MP for the constituency is Órfhlaith Begley of Sinn Féin.
Clifford Forsythe, the Ulster Unionist Party Member of Parliament for South Antrim, died on 27 April 2000; as result, a by-election was held in the constituency on 21 September 2000.
Mid Ulster is a parliamentary constituency in the UK House of Commons. The current MP is Francie Molloy of Sinn Féin.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone is a parliamentary constituency in the British House of Commons. The current MP is Michelle Gildernew of Sinn Féin.
Belfast North is a parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom House of Commons. The current MP is John Finucane of Sinn Féin.
Belfast South is a parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom House of Commons. The current MP is Claire Hanna of the SDLP.
Newry and Armagh is a parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom House of Commons. The current MP is Mickey Brady of Sinn Féin.
United Ireland, also referred to as Irish reunification, is the proposition that all of Ireland should be a single sovereign state. At present, the island is divided politically; the sovereign Republic of Ireland has jurisdiction over the majority of Ireland, while Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. Achieving a united Ireland is a central tenet of Irish nationalism, particularly of both mainstream and dissident Irish republican political and paramilitary organisations. Unionists support Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom, and therefore oppose Irish unification.
Belfast City Council is the local authority with responsibility for part of the city of Belfast, the capital and largest city of Northern Ireland. The Council serves an estimated population of 333,871 (2011), the largest of any district council in Northern Ireland, while also being the fourth smallest by area. Belfast City Council is the primary council of the Belfast Metropolitan Area, a grouping of six district councils with commuter towns and overspill from Belfast, containing a total population of 579,276.
The 1986 Northern Ireland by-elections were fifteen by-elections held on 23 January 1986, to fill vacancies in the Parliament of the United Kingdom caused by the resignation in December 1985 of all sitting Unionist Members of Parliament (MPs). The MPs, from the Ulster Unionist Party, Democratic Unionist Party and Ulster Popular Unionist Party, did this to highlight their opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Each of their parties agreed not to contest seats previously held by the others, and each outgoing MP stood for re-election.
The 2011 election to the Northern Ireland Assembly took place on Thursday, 5 May, following the dissolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly at midnight on 24 March 2011. It was the fourth election to take place since the devolved assembly was established in 1998.
The 2005 United Kingdom general election in Northern Ireland was held on 5 May 2005 and all 18 seats in Northern Ireland were contested. 1,139,993 people were eligible to vote, down 51,016 from the 2001 general election. 63.49% of eligible voters turned out, down 5.1 percentage points from the last general election.