The island of Ireland is divided between two sovereign states: the Republic of Ireland, which spans across five sixths of the island's area, and the United Kingdom, which takes up the remaining sixth part. The UK's part is commonly known as Northern Ireland. Irish nationalism believes this division to be illegitimate, and demands the unification of the whole territory under one single sovereign state.
The current territory of the Republic of Ireland is independent from the UK since 1922, when it was was proclaimed as the Irish Free State, with the British monarch as its head of state. Since 1937 de facto, and since 1948 de iure, the country has been a republic.
Northern Ireland remained in the UK in 1922. Since 1999, one year after the Good Friday Agreements were signed, it has enjoyed legislative and executive devolved powers which are exercised by the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive. The Good Friday Agreements recognize the right of the people of Northern Ireland to decide whether the territory should remain a part of the UK, or rather re-unify with the rest of Ireland. The Agreements further specify that, should the people of the Republic of Ireland and of Northern Ireland —each one separately— decide to reunify the island, the Irish and UK governments would be legally bound to give effect to that wish. The possibility of independence of Northern Ireland alone is not foreseen in the text.
Besides this, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland —since 1999 too— share a series of governing bodies under the umbrella of the North/South Ministerial Council, which are responsible for powers on an all-Ireland basis, which include tourism, education, agriculture, environment, health, water, language, trade and transport.
English is the only official language on the whole island, which is spoken by the majority of the population (> 99%). English has had a continuous and growing presence of speakers in Ireland since the early 17th century, starting in Ulster and the Dublin region and spreading to all the counties throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
However, the language of Ireland that has been spoken continuously since the earliest times (at least since the beginning of the Common Era) is Irish, a Celtic language of the Goidelic branch. Irish is an official language of the Republic of Ireland, alongside English, and has official language status in Northern Ireland.
The proportion of Irish speakers has been progressively declining since the 17th century due to linguistic substitution by English. The fact that the language is taught in Irish schools explains why, according to the 2011 census, almost 1.8 million Irish can speak it. However, only 77,000 report speaking it on a daily basis outside the education system.
In Northern Ireland, Irish is spoken by 119,000 people, according to the 2021 census. Of these, some 6,000 have it as their main language.
Also in Northern Ireland, a few communities have preserved some use of Scots, a Germanic language originating in the lowlands of Scotland and established in the north of Ireland from the 17th century onwards. The Northern Irish census puts the number of Scots speakers in Northern Ireland at around 60,000. Some people cultivate the language in County Donegal, the northernmost county of the Republic, where Scots had also been a community language.
Some members of the Irish Traveller, or Mincéiri, people keep alive the use of Shelta, a language with an English grammatical base but with much of its lexicon derived from Irish.
National identity in Northern Ireland
The Good Friday Agreement also provide for the birth right of every Northern Irish person to be recognized and accepted either as British, Irish or both. This includes the right to hold a UK passport, a Republic of Ireland passport, or both. According to the Northern Irish 2021 census, 52.5% of the Northern Irish population holds a British passport; 32.3%, an Irish passport; and 3.8%, another EU passport.
The identity breakup of the population of Northern Ireland is a complex one, according to the 2021 census. Results (more than one option could be chosen) were as follows: British 42.8%; Irish 33.3%; Northern Irish 31.5%; other options 7.5%. Generally speaking, Catholics tended to define themselves as Irish while Protestants tended to define themselves as British. Nevertheless, this was in now way an automatic correlation.
(Last updated December 2022.)