Northern Ireland * | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Northern Ireland *

Northern Ireland *

Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Northern Ireland received a downward trend arrow because of increased sectarian violence, as well as the continued political stalemate regarding the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.


The peace process and the devolved government set out by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement remained on shaky ground throughout 2001, as disputes over arms decommissioning, British Army demilitarization, and policing continued. The failure of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to move on disarmament led to increasing unionist opposition to the power-sharing arrangement, even within the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) of First Minister David Trimble. Trimble resigned in July, triggering a protracted period of negotiations to salvage the peace process that ended only in October, when the IRA announced that it had come to an arrangement intended to put its weapons beyond use.

Northern Ireland comprises six of the nine counties of the Irish province of Ulster. At the insistence of the locally dominant Protestants, these counties remained part of the United Kingdom after the other 26, predominantly Catholic, Irish counties gained independence in 1921. Catholics now constitute a majority in four of the six counties. The demographic trends have aroused anxiety among Protestants, who are largely descended from seventeenth-century Scottish and English settlers. Britain's 1920 Government of Ireland Act set up the Northern Irish parliament, which functioned until the British imposed direct rule in 1972.

Disorder resulting from a nonviolent Catholic civil rights movement in the 1960s prompted the deployment of British troops that remain in the territory today. Amid sectarian violence beginning in the 1970s, divisions grew within both the primarily Protestant unionist and Catholic nationalist communities. The numerous political factions include the conservative UUP, the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the interdenominational unionist Alliance Party, the moderate pro-nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and the nationalist Sinn Fein (the political wing of the IRA). Paramilitary groups on both the unionist and the nationalist sides have engaged in terrorism.

Negotiations for a peace settlement began in June 1996, and British general elections in May 1997 ushered in a Labour government with a mandate to bolster the peace process. The new prime minister, Tony Blair, immediately began to undertake confidencebuilding measures, such as reinstating official contacts between his government and Sinn Fein and repatriating republican prisoners from Northern Irish to Irish prisons. His efforts helped secure an IRA ceasefire, and Sinn Fein's participation in talks, in July 1997.

Intense determination by Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern kept negotiations on track despite a continuation of violence by paramilitary groups that had not declared ceasefires. U.S. President Bill Clinton sent his own envoy, former Senator George Mitchell, to chair negotiations. In April 1998, Mitchell presented a compromise plan that became the Good Friday Agreement. The agreement called for a 108- member, directly elected Northern Ireland Assembly with full executive and legislative authority; a north-south council of Northern Irish and Irish officials to develop consultation, cooperation, and action on matters of mutual interest; and a council of British, Irish, Northern Irish, Scottish, and Welsh representatives to discuss particular policy issues. Perhaps most significantly, the Good Friday Agreement recognizes the "principle of consent," that is, that a united Ireland will not come about without the consent of a majority of people in both jurisdictions.

Elections to the new assembly took place in June 1998. Of almost 300 candidates representing 12 political parties, pro-agreement moderates and nationalists were the big winners. The UUP took 28 seats, while the SDLP took 24 and Sinn Fein 18. Antiagreement parties took 28 seats. The Alliance Party won 6 seats. At the first session of the new legislature, David Trimble of the UUP was elected first minister. Britain officially handed power to the assembly in December 1999.

Disputes over the decommissioning of IRA weapons have stalled progress on peace and cooperation since negotiations began. Under the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Fein led other participants to believe that steps toward disarmament would occur by February 2000. Not only did the IRA fail to take those steps, but as many unionists pointed out, the IRA still had not explicitly and permanently renounced violence. The dispute led Britain to shut down the assembly and reassert control on February 11, 2000. In May, the IRA offered to open its arms dumps to independent inspection. Later that month, the IRA publicly stated its intention to put its arms "completely and verifiably beyond use." Home rule was then restored under a British-Irish agreement that extended the IRA's disarmament deadline to June 2001.

Increasing anti-agreement sentiment within the UUP created significant problems for David Trimble. During 2000, he faced five challenges to his leadership of the party, surviving as its leader by a narrow margin each time. However, each political fight left Trimble in a more precarious position. The British general election in June 2001 led to increased representation in parliament for hardline groups at the expense of moderates.

Frustrated with the continued lack of progress on disarmament in 2001 and under pressure from hardline unionists, Trimble resigned as first minister on July 1, triggering a six-week period at the end of which the assembly would face either collapse or suspension. Following this, the Ulster Freedom Fighters and Ulster Volunteer Force, two of Northern Ireland's main loyalist paramilitary groups, withdrew their support for the peace process. An update published in July by the de Chastelain commission, the international body charged with overseeing the disarmament process, stated that there had been no tangible signs of decommissioning by the IRA or the main loyalist paramilitary organizations.

The British and Irish governments led talks aimed at breaking the deadlock, but when the major parties failed to accept their proposals, the assembly was suspended briefly in August, and then again in September, to allow for further six-week periods of negotiation. A breakthough was achieved in late October when the IRA announced that a scheme to decommission weapons had been partially implemented. In early November, Trimble failed in a reelection bid after anti-agreement unionists voted against him, but his election was pushed through four days later with a bare majority of unionist support. SLDP leader Mark Durkan was elected as his deputy.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The people of Northern Ireland elected a 108-member legislature in free and fair elections in June 1998. The assembly has full executive and legislative power, though Britain maintains responsibility for defense and security.

The Good Friday Agreement specifically addresses a number of human rights issues. It requires the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into Northern Irish law, so that aggrieved parties may take alleged violations of the convention to Northern Irish courts. In July, the European Court of Human Rights found the British government guilty of violating the human rights of ten IRA members shot dead by security forces in incidents that occurred between 1982 and 1992. The agreement also requires Britain to promote equality in employment, to preserve and promote the Irish language, to reduce British troop deployments to peacetime levels, to establish an independent commission on police reform, and to appoint a body to review the criminal justice system. These reforms proceeded, but according to rights monitors, have not yet gone far enough.

The British parliament passed the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill in November 2000. Based on a report by an independent commission on police reform led by former Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten, the law's most controversial provisions included changing the working title of the police force from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) to the more neutral Police Service of Northern Ireland, and changing the symbols used on police badges and uniforms. In August 2001, the British and Irish governments issued a revised implementation plan for the Patten Commission report, which, although agreed to by the SDLP, was not approved by Sinn Fein, who cited its failure to incorporate several key provisions of Patten's report, particularly increased accountability. In addition, the law aimed to create an equal ratio of Catholic and Protestant police officers, and to establish a 19-member policing board. In September 2001, the Northern Ireland Police Board was established with representation from all the major political parties except Sinn Fein, leading to concerns that Catholics with nationalist tendencies would be less likely to join the police service.

The Terrorism Act 2000 came into effect in February 2001. The law replaces emergency laws throughout the United Kingdom and extends, for up to five years, most of the emergency provisions already in force in Northern Ireland, including nonjury courts for terrorist offenses, a lower standard for the admissibility of confessions than in criminal courts, the interpretation of a suspect's silence as an admission of guilt, the imprisonment of suspected terrorists on the word of a senior police officer, and army and police powers of arrest, entry, search, and seizure without a warrant.

Sectarian violence by loyalist and republican paramilitary groups, which had largely abated after the Good Friday Agreement, made a comeback in 2001. Clashes broke out during the annual summer marching season, when Protestant parades celebrate historic military victories over Catholics. Rioting between crowds of nationalists and loyalists in northern Belfast, during which more than 100 petrol bombs were thrown at police, left 39 officers wounded in June; a similar serious riot took place in late September at which 33 officers were injured. Young girls at the Holy Cross elementary school in the Ardoyne area of Belfast were targeted by local loyalist protestors, who shouted sectarian slurs and death threats, threw bottles, and lobbed blast bombs.

Britain has shut down 32 military posts in Northern Ireland and has withdrawn nearly 4,000 soldiers, leaving a current total of 13,000. In October, following the IRA's decision to put some of its weapons beyond use, the British government announced its intention to dismantle four of its security installations.

A new inquiry into the killing by British soldiers of 14 unarmed civil rights marchers in Londonderry on January 30, 1972 (Bloody Sunday), opened in March 2000; a previous tribunal was discredited after finding the army not liable. Also, the investigation continues into the August 1998 bombing in Omagh that killed 29 people and injured hundreds. Human rights groups, as well as the British and Irish governments, have called for inquiries into the murders of defense lawyer Patrick Finucane in 1989 and of human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson in 1999. In December, William Stobie, a key witness concerning allegations of official collusion in the Finucane case, was murdered by armed gunmen in Belfast.

Antiterror legislation may restrict the right of assembly, association, or freedom of expression, but it is not generally used to do so, and Northern Ireland enjoys a vibrant civil society. According to Human Rights Watch, press outlets continued to face some difficulty in reporting on the Force Research Unit, a unit within British Army intelligence alleged to be responsible for a number of killings through its network of agents in various paramilitary groups. In October, investigative journalist Martin O'Hagan was shot dead outside his home by unknown gunmen. The Red Hand Defenders, a Protestant paramilitary group, later took responsibility for the murder.

Women are well represented in the workplace and the professions, although domestic violence is considered to be a problem. Workers may bargain collectively and strike, and there are at least 33 trade unions in the territory.

The findings of a comprehensive study into racial prejudice in Northern Ireland were released in April 2000. The study determined that racism is now twice as common as sectarianism, and that hostility is mainly directed at the traditional Irish nomadic Traveller community. In a University of Ulster survey of parents and children from racial minorities in schools, 66 percent of those interviewed reported racist namecalling and 13 percent reported physical harassment. A rising number of attacks on homosexuals had led the RUC to announce in July 2000 the implementation of a monitoring system for homophobic incidents.