Identification. Historically, the Northern Irish inhabit the nine-county province of Ulster. In 1920 British sovereignty was retained over six of these counties (Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, and Tyrone) by the Government of Ireland Act. The other three counties (Cavan, Donegal, and Monaghan) became part of the Irish Free State. A Protestant minority within Ireland was guaranteed political and economic viability within the six counties.
For most of the population, Irishness and Britishness are not mutually exclusive categories but matters of sentiment and conviction. In 1966, 15 percent of the Roman Catholics and 39 percent of the Protestants claimed "British" national identity while 76 percent and 20 percent, respectively, claimed "Irish." In 1978, after nine years of civil unrest, the number of Catholics asserting British identity remained at 15 percent, but the number of Protestants calling themselves British rose to 67 percent. That same year 69 percent of the Catholics but only 8 percent of the Protestants said they were Irish. Among both denominations, 62 percent considered themselves more like people in the Republic of Ireland than like people in England.
Location. Northern Ireland is located between 54° and 55°20′ N and 5°30′ and 8°15′ W. In area (13,629 square kilometers) it is approximately one-sixth of Ireland. A land boundary of some 450 kilometers separates it from the Irish republic and a sea boundary separates it from Scotland, 20.8 kilometers away. The climate is mild.
Demography. In 1986 the population was 1,578,000. The eastern seaboard, where the provincial capital Belfast is located, had a population density of 111 persons per square kilometer. Total population grew by 1.9 percent between 1981 and 1986. The age structure of Northern Ireland is younger than the rest of the United Kingdom (U.K.), 8.7 percent being under age 5 in 1986. The percentage over 65 is lower at 14.4. The birthrate is high at 18 births per 1,000 population; the national average is 9.9. Just under two-thirds of the Population is of Scots and English descent, their forebears having settled in Ulster at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The remaining third is of Irish origin. There has been continuous population movement across the Irish Sea, and many English and Scottish cities have Irish wards. There has also been extensive migration to North America.
Linguistic Affiliation. Two dialect areas—an Ulster Scots zone in the northern and eastern coastal areas and an Ulster Anglo-Irish zone in the inland central, southern, and southwestern parts—follow regional, not religious, patterns. As in the rest of the U.K. and in the Republic of Ireland, class provides the greatest distinction. Irish Gaelic persisted in the westernmost counties until the mid-nineteenth century; Scottish Gaelic dialect traces are found in Antrim. Ulster Irish is considered a cross between Scottish and Irish Gaelic. Gaelic loanwords are common in Northern Irish speech.