“Rain is also very difficult to film, particularly in Ireland because it's quite fine, so fine that the Irish don't even acknowledge that it exists.” - Alan Parker

In 2019, Ireland was voted the Best European Destination for Groups by the Group Travel Awards. Ireland draws in plenty of tourists with its beautiful countryside, but Ireland is so much more than that.

Few tourists really know the story and history of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Aren’t they the same country?

What’s the Difference Between Ireland and Northern Ireland?

Would you like to visit Ireland? Which one?

Geographically speaking, Ireland is an island and the second largest in the British Isles. It’s the third-largest island in Europe and welcomes millions of tourists every year, but we can also talk about Ireland politically as the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

What are the differences between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland?
Geographically speaking, there are a lot of similarities between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, then there's stuff like this... (Source: PaulHampshire)

But what does that mean?

The island of Ireland is split in two. There are two nations sharing the island. In the northeast of the island, there’s Northern Ireland, a constituent country of the United Kingdom. The rest of the island is occupied by the Republic of Ireland, a sovereign state.

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland which also includes England, Scotland, and Wales.

The Republic of Ireland is independent of this union.

After many conflicts, the Republic of Ireland gained its independence from the United Kingdom in the first half of the 20th century. These conflicts led to the Republic of Ireland becoming an independent state in 1937 with the creation of its constitution.

It wouldn’t be until 1949 that is was a fully independent state, though.

Let’s just say that confusing the two doesn’t normally sit well with the inhabitants of either and that there are still tensions between the two nations.

Find out more about Ireland.

Why Is Ireland Split in Two?

To better understand why there are two Irelands sharing the island of Ireland, you need to study a bit of history.

What is the geography of Ireland like?
The island is generally plains with coastal mountains. (Source: Ben_Kerckx)

In 1801, the whole of Ireland was joined to the United Kingdom by the Acts of the Union. Ireland joined England and Scotland to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

The majority of the United Kingdom are protestants while the majority of the Irish are Catholics. The hostilities between different religions and cultures and religions never stopped. The Irish repeatedly rejected British rule, which came to a head during the Easter Rising, an armed conflict in 1916 and the subsequent war that started in 1919.

This war of independence finished in 1921. British authorities chose to split Ireland into two parts. The north, where the majority were protestants, became Northern Ireland, with its capital in Belfast. The south, where the majority were Catholics, became the Republic of Ireland with its own parliament in the capital city of Dublin. Officially, the Republic of Ireland was born in 1949.

However, the Catholics in Ireland often don’t see this as a real solution and seek to reunify the whole island, ridding it of British rule. However, many protestants rejected the Catholics' calls for unification. This division would continue for many years.

The situation became particularly grim in the 1960s. The population remained split in two with protestants who were usually loyal to the crown and the UK, facing off against Catholics who preferred the idea of a unified Ireland.

The fighting was regularly brutal and bloody with peaceful protests organised by NICRA (Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association) being ended by a massacre by British soldiers in which over a dozen people died.

The U2 song “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is about the events of that day.

In January 1972, British soldiers shot at 26 peaceful protesters in Derry. 13 died on that day, 1 months later, and 12 were injured. The group was protesting against a law that allowed the British to make arrests without trial. The events would drastically mark the history of Ireland.

During the 30 years of conflict, over 3,500 people would die. During this time, violent acts became commonplace.

It wouldn’t be until the late 80s that any semblance of calm would return. After an attempt on the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s life in 1984, negotiations were made and the Hillsborough Castle Agreement was made in 1985.

A ceasefire wouldn’t be agreed until 1997. The Good Friday Agreement of 18 April 1998 helped reduce the violence.

  • This agreement included:
  • The disarmament of the IRA.
  • The end of a territorial claim to Northern Ireland by the Republic of Ireland.

The right of every Northern Irish to hold a British passport, an Irish passport, or both. While this effectively put an end to the conflict, the desire for a unified Ireland still remains.

Learn more about Ireland's history.

The Geography, Politics, and Economies of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland

History has had a profound effect on both nations. The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are two remarkably different countries despite sharing an island and a past.

Why is Ireland split in two?
Guinness is brewed in Dublin, the capital of the Republic of Ireland, but is available in both countries. (Source: Engin_Akyurt)

Politics are obviously the first main difference. The Republic of Ireland elects a president every 7 years, has a two-chamber parliament, and a prime minister, similar to other republics around the world.

Northern Ireland does not operate like this. The country is part of the United Kingdom. As a constitutional monarchy without a president. The Northern Ireland Assembly is located in Belfast and works with the UK parliament.

Religion is also where the differences between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland become more apparent. Religion, among many other things, played a role in the division between the two countries. The Republic of Ireland is predominantly catholic while Northern Ireland is mainly protestant.

The currency differs between the two nations, too. While the United Kingdom was a member of the European Union for a long time, it never adopted the Euro. Travellers from Europe will need to change their Euros for Pounds Sterling if they’re travelling to Northern Ireland. This is the same currency as across the rest of the UK. On the other hand, if you’re travelling to the Republic of Ireland, your Euros are welcome.

Finally, Northern Ireland is made up of 6 counties while the Republic of Ireland is made up of 26. The capital of the Republic of Ireland is Dublin while Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland.

Discover Ireland's best towns.

What Is the Current Situation Like Between the Two Countries?

Tensions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have eased in recent years but they’re still there. There’s a delicate game being played to avoid reigniting old conflicts.

What are Irish relations currently like?
Since the Good Friday Agreement, there has been less violence on the island. (Source: hhach)

The power in Northern Ireland’s parliament is shared between unionists (those who want to remain part of the UK) and nationalists (who want to see a unified Ireland).

However, Brexit has awoken some of Ireland’s demons. When the UK leaves the EU, Northern Ireland has to leave too. The Republic of Ireland, as a sovereign nation, remains part of the EU. This makes things at the border rather complicated.

The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has been open since 1998 with inhabitants free to move around the island. Closing the borders between the EU and the UK at the Irish border will be seen by many as a step backwards.

Furthermore, 55.9% of Northern Ireland voted against Brexit. However, 51.9% of the UK voted for it. The vote didn’t take each constituent country of the UK independently and risks undoing the progress made by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Recent agreements have allowed Northern Ireland to keep some of the benefits offered by the EU if they so wish.

In the Republic of Ireland, there’s still the desire to see the two countries unified. However, to do this, each country would need to hold a referendum where both sides agree. Experts generally agree that this is unlikely to happen.

Learn about the most famous people from Ireland.

If you'd like to learn more about Ireland and improve your English, consider getting English private tutorials from one of the many talented and experienced tutors on Superprof!

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Joseph is a French and Spanish to English translator, language enthusiast, and blogger.