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Explaining Northern Ireland To Students of English

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Part of learning English will often involve reference to the history and culture of the places where the English language originated; primarily Britain. Many texts and activities will require students to look at maps of the British Isles. Our learners are then confronted by the fact that The British Isles are divided into five countries on the political map; England, Scotland and Wales on the larger of the two main islands, with The Republic of Ireland (Eire) and Northern Island occupying the smaller island. Simple curiosity is bound to make some of them question why this is so. Older and more advanced students might want to probe deeper into these questions. What are the relationships between these countries? Why is the island of Ireland split in two? Some may be aware that there has been conflict between Britain and Ireland. In discursive essays, they might be asked to write down what they know about the situation. What should they know? What should ‘we’ know? How should we prepare them for tasks that may involve confronting controversial themes?

In this article, I will attempt to give a short, potted history of the relationship and conflicts between Britain and Ireland that have resulted in the current political and geographic situation. I will discuss some of the complexities of dealing with this theme and other controversial subjects in the classroom. For full disclosure, I am a British citizen, but I have Irish ancestry. I am in the process of applying for Irish citizenship as well.


Let’s start with the less controversial aspect of Geography. Like them or not, the way the lines are drawn on current maps are real and factual. So, what do they mean? Many of our students will be confused by the names and terms applied to the various political parts of the British Isles. The three countries shown on the larger of the two main British Isles are England, Scotland and Wales. These are known collectively as Great Britain and are democratically ruled by a single parliament in London; the capital of England and The United Kingdom (which will be explained in a moment). The largest part of the neighbouring island of Ireland is known as The Republic of Ireland (Eire in Irish) and is governed democratically from Dublin, the capital city of Ireland. Great Britain and Eire are two completely separate political entities; each with their own laws and parliament. The northeast corner of the island of Ireland is known as Northern Ireland and is mainly governed by Britain although it has its own limited government called the ‘Northern Ireland Assembly’ based in Belfast (which, at the time of writing, has been suspended). The term United Kingdom refers to the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, making them in effect one state comprising four counties (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

What the students need to know

Well, that is the easy part! Now, to explain a little about the history of these nations and the relationships between them. For this, I will keep as closely as possible to recorded historical facts. When dealing with any subject where there has been a dispute or controversy, we need to be aware of our own bias, no matter how faint or subtle that might be. We need to be guided by what our students need to know, and the level and depth at which they will be required to discuss the subject orally or in writing. Within the context of an English lesson, from A1 to B1 level they will probably only require the most basic facts. At B2 level and above they will need to show greater knowledge and be able to discuss things in a more nuanced way.


There is some evidence that the island of Ireland has been inhabited since prehistoric times. During the Iron Age, Ireland was gradually settled by groups of Celts arriving from Europe who mixed with local populations. Later, in the Roman era, Christianity began to subsume or replace the earlier polytheistic culture of the Celts.

The Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169 marked the beginning of more than 800 years of British political and military involvement in Ireland. Despite some intermingling of the English and Irish populations present on the island of Ireland, the two were never completely united and, in some cases, there was open hostility between the two populations. These problems intensified during the reign of Henry VIII. His break from Rome placed him at odds with most of Catholic Europe, including Ireland. Resistance to the British Crown came in 1534 when the Kildare heir, Lord Offaly, led a Catholic revolt against the Protestant English King in Ireland. It was swiftly put down and those involved were executed.

Elizabeth I continued her father’s legacy in Ireland. A bid for independence by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, was ultimately defeated by the Queen’s army, with a harsh post-war settlement limiting the power of the Catholic majority.

In the following years ‘Plantations’ were established throughout the country. Lands occupied by Irish landowners were confiscated and distributed to colonists, (known as planters) who came in large numbers from England, Scotland and Wales. The final official plantations sprung up under Oliver Cromwell’s English Commonwealth during the 1650s, when thousands of Parliamentarian soldiers were settled in Ireland. The plantations altered the demography of Ireland creating large Protestant English communities, especially in the north of the country.

In September 1649, Cromwell laid siege to Drogheda, on the East coast of Ireland, which had been garrisoned by a coalition of Roman Catholics, Confederates and Royalists. All 2,800 of Drogheda’s defenders were massacred.

In the centuries that followed, there were many more disputes and uprisings by the Irish population, but Britain generally kept the upper hand and put down all revolts; sometimes ruthlessly.

By 1851, the Irish population had dropped by two million because of the Potato Famine of the 1840s, as well as disease and emigration. However, the desire for an autonomous Ireland only intensified. By the turn of the century, some British politicians had recognised the need for Irish self-government.

Arguments and violent disputes (including the Easter Uprising of 1916) continued through the war years of the early twentieth century. Sinn Fein was established in 1905 and gradually became the main political entity representing the Catholic Irish community. Violence and private militias sprung up on both sides of the political divide. In May 1921 the Government of Ireland Act was passed, splitting Ireland into two. Six predominantly Protestant counties become known as the ‘North’ and the remaining 26 counties formed ‘The South.’ The South was finally granted full independence in 1937 when Eire (Gaelic for Ireland) became an independent, sovereign state. Since then, relations between Great Britain and The Republic of Ireland have been largely peaceful. However, the situation in the six counties in the north of Ireland was unresolved and became increasingly difficult and violent as the twentieth century progressed.

In what became known as Northern Ireland, the conflict between the Protestants and Catholics continued, with the IRA (Irish Republican Army) fighting for the Catholic side and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) representing militant Protestants. In the 1960s the conflict became increasingly aggressive, and a splinter group of the IRA (the Provisional IRA) embarked on an openly violent campaign to unite Northern Ireland with The Republic.

As the situation in Northern Ireland became even more unstable with the military wings of various factions fighting against each other, British troops were sent to Northern Ireland in the hope of keeping the peace. They conducted house-to-house searches and imposed a curfew. It can be argued that their presence only intensified the dispute. On 30 January 1972, (a day that became known as Bloody Sunday) the army controversially intervened in a civil rights march in the city of Derry. Fourteen civil rights protestors were killed. This increased the popularity and membership of The IRA while more British troops were deployed to the area; escalating what became known as ‘The Troubles’.

In May 1973 bombs planted by Northern Ireland’s protestant loyalists exploded in Dublin and Monaghan in The Irish Republic, killing 32 people. During the next quarter of a century, the Provisional IRA stepped up its campaign which included bombings in the United Kingdom. In 1984 an IRA bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the ruling Conservative Party Conference, killed 5 people and seriously injured 34. Meanwhile, various power-sharing and peace initiatives for Northern Ireland were tried. Most failed, but the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985, which stated that Northern Ireland would remain independent of the Republic as long as that represented the will of the majority in the North, paved the way for further discussion.

While the violence continued, talks went on (sometimes secretly) between all sides and in 1994 the main paramilitary groups agreed to ceasefires. This led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, in which the direct rule of Northern Ireland was placed in the hands of a locally elected government based at Stormont in Belfast. Following that, Northern Ireland experienced a much more peaceful and stable period. However, the Good Friday Agreement depended on there being an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic; and presupposed that both Britain and Ireland would remain members of the European Union.

When Britain left the EU, it was unclear how Northern Ireland could maintain open access to The Republic while that very border would in effect become a hard border between Britain and the European Union. The Northern Ireland Protocol was an attempted compromise, signed at the last moment, which ultimately failed to satisfy any party. In February 2023 the British Prime Minister and the European Commission President unveiled the ‘Windsor Framework’ which it is hoped will fix the problems with the Northern Ireland Protocol and thus help maintain peace and prosperity in the province. At the time of writing, the most influential loyalist party of Northern Ireland (The DUP) stated that they will vote against the Windsor Framework. Thus, the situation in Northern Ireland is still currently unresolved and its future is uncertain.

References and Caveats’ 

In compiling this short history of Northern Ireland, I have referred to websites from The History Channel, Wikipedia, Sky News, The BBC, and Encyclopaedia Britannica, as well as British and Irish Government Websites. I am aware that it is brief and incomplete; indeed, whole books have been written about aspects and events of this history that I have left out altogether. I am equally aware that what you choose to leave out, can alter the story or show bias just as much as the way what you do include is phrased and written. This is particularly the case when you try to condense such a vast and complicated subject into a thousand words.

Classrooms and Exams

I have been guided by what an advanced student of English might need to know in order to produce a presentation or an essay about Northern Ireland. This might be for state English exams or for external examinations such as Cambridge or Trinity. Or it could be for a research project as part of the normal curriculum coursework. The majority of our students would not need to know half as much as what I have included here. Nor are they going to be judged by the accuracy of their historical facts. However, the more advanced they are (B2, C1, C2), the more they will need to demonstrate the depth of their research, be able to reference sources, and explain and justify any conclusions they come to.

Controversial Topics; A Teaching Idea

While writing this article I became concerned about the sheer amount of information I would be forced to leave out. Omitting things is clearly an editorial decision and can change or flavour the overall meaning of the text. My short history of Northern Ireland was intended to provide background and context for any further discussion of the topic with students of English. It was not intended to be comprehensive or to favour any particular party in the conflict. You can judge the degree to which I was successful in this attempt. Hopefully, I didn’t stray too far from the aim.

One of the techniques I used was to make a list of important dates and facts and then see how many of them I could leave out or gloss over without changing the overall purpose or meaning of the text. With more mature and advanced students this could be done with any controversial topic from ‘Climate Change’ to the war in Ukraine.

Let’s take Climate Change as an example. Give your students a well-defined essay title on the theme, such as, ‘Can global warming be reduced?’ Get them into groups and ask each group to research and note down the top ten facts they would like to include in a potential essay. Once they have done that, tell them that they won’t have time or space to include all the facts they have collected and they must now decide which facts they can leave out without damaging their argument. They can discuss this in groups and then as a class. Encourage them to think carefully about the facts they have omitted and justify how their essay can still answer the question without them.


Our world is full of difficult and complex situations. One of the benefits of speaking English is being able to discuss these issues more widely and with people of different cultures and world views. Students can be introduced to this in the English classroom so long as the purpose for doing so is clear and the linguistic elements of the task are highlighted.

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