Northern Ireland * | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Northern Ireland *

Northern Ireland *

Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


The peace process suffered a blow in 2002 after police uncovered documents that indicated the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had infiltrated the Northern Ireland Office. The Northern Ireland Assembly was subsequently suspended as of midnight October 14, 2002. Sectarian violence continued.

Northern Ireland comprises 6 of the 9 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, counties gained independence in 1921. Catholics now constitute a majority in 4 of the 6 counties. This demographic trend has aroused anxiety among Protestants, who are largely descended from seventeenth century Scottish and English settlers. Britain's 1920 Government of Ireland Act established 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, and these troops remain in the territory today. Amid sectarian violence beginning in the 1970s, divisions grew within the primarily Protestant unionist and Catholic nationalist communities. The numerous political factions include the conservative Ulster Unionist Party, the hardline Democratic Unionist Party, the interdenominational unionist Alliance Party, the moderate pro-nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, 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.

Peace negotiations began in June 1996, with British Prime Minister Tony Blair securing an IRA ceasefire and Sinn Fein's participation in July 1997 talks. Blair and Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern kept negotiations on track despite continued violence by paramilitary groups. In April 1998, U.S. Senator George Mitchell, under the direction of President Bill Clinton, presented a plan that became the Good Friday Agreement. The Agreement led to the creation of a 108member, directly elected Northern Ireland Assembly with full executive and legislative authority. Perhaps most significant, the Agreement recognized the "principle of consent," that is, that a united Ireland is dependent upon the consent of a majority of people in both jurisdictions. Pro-agreement moderates and nationalists dominated the assembly's first elections in June 1998.

Under the Agreement, Sinn Fein was obliged to disarm and renounce violence. A series of negotiation and inspections, however, revealed that Sinn Fein was not meeting its obligations. In response, Britain shut down the Assembly and reasserted control several times from February 2000 to October 2002, the latest suspension occurring as of midnight October 14, 2002, after police raided Sinn Fein houses and offices and found documents of use to IRA terrorists.

Sectarian violence continued, including petrol bombings of homes, shootings and killings. Amnesty International has urged the government and political and community leaders to address these human rights abuses.

The UK and Northern Ireland governments appointed former Canadian Supreme Court judge Peter Cory in May 2002 to investigate allegations of state collusion in six murder cases-- those of defense lawyer Patrick Finucane; human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson; Robert Hamill; Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan (two Royal Ulster Constabulary officers); Lord Justice Maurice and Lady Cecily Gibson; and Billy Wright.

Reporters Sans Frontieres expressed concern in September 2002 at the lack of progress in the murder investigation of Irish journalist Martin O'Hagan, who had been investigating armed groups. The Red Hand Defenders, a name used by Protestant paramilitary groups, in particular the Loyalist Volunteer Force, claimed responsibility.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The Good Friday Agreement of April 1998 provides for, among other things, a devolved government, a commitment to human rights, and policing reform in Northern Ireland. 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 Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, established by the Northern Ireland Act 1998, advances human rights in Northern Ireland. The Act 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 September 1999, the Independent Commission for Policing in Northern Ireland produced the Patten Report, which made 175 recommendations for change. In response to the report, the name of the police force was changed from the Royal Ulster Constabulary to the more neutral Police Service of Northern Ireland, the symbols used on police badges and uniforms were changed, and the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland was established to provide an independent and impartial police-complaints system.

The Terrorism Act 2000, effective in February of 2001, 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 offences; 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.

The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, effective September 24, 1997, was extended by the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning (Amendment) Act 2002. By the end of 2002, there were fewer than 13,500 British troops in Northern Ireland, the lowest level since 1970. Routine military patrolling has been halved since the Good Friday Agreement. Since the IRA ceasefire in July 1997, more than 3,000 British troops have been withdrawn and the army has demolished or vacated 48 of the 105 military bases and installations it had occupied, plus two towers.

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.

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