Belfast appartment

Northern Ireland: The United Kingdom’s Non-Nation

Published: 20 July 2021

In a blog written for the CCC Summer School, Lisa Claire Whitten argues that despite the current narrative of the “four nations of the United Kingdom”, this language is problematic, calling Northern Ireland “a nation” is to misunderstand the place and its politics.

Arrangements for government in contemporary Northern Ireland derive from the 1998 Belfast ‘Good Friday’ Agreement. A novel peace agreement which was the result of prolonged negotiations between the British government, the Irish government, and political parties in Northern Ireland, and which marked the end of three decades of internecine violence between two communities defined by their opposing national identities and constitutional aspirations: Unionists who identify as British and want Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK and Nationalists who identify as Irish and want Northern Ireland to leave to UK and form part of a United Ireland.

In content, the 1998 Agreement effectively bestowed equal legitimacy on the national identities and constitutional aspirations of both Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland. Under its terms, residents in Northern Ireland can choose British citizenship, Irish citizenship, or both; it established institutions for North-South governance and East-West governance thereby recognising both Unionists’ Britishness and Nationalists’ Irishness. The 1998 Agreement provided for devolved government that operates on a system of mandatory power-sharing with specific safeguards for ‘cross-community’ consent on key issues; and, finally, the Agreement set out a path for potential future change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional status – from the UK to a United Ireland – based on majority consent.

Taken together, therefore, the provisions of the 1998 Agreement did not solve the long-running divisions between the “two communities” in Northern Ireland. Rather, by embracing ‘constructive ambiguity’ on contested issues, a remarkably fluid understanding of national identity, and an open-ended approach to constitutional future, the 1998 Agreement allowed conflict over the multiplicity and complexity of nations in Northern Ireland to be managed not by force but by politics.

Writing in 1983 political scientist, Benedict Anderson famously defined the nation as an “imagined community” forged by a sense of “horizontal comradeship” between people who have not met but believe that they belong to the same collective, ascribe to a common history, and share certain attitudes or traits.

Following from this definition the idea of Northern Ireland as a nation is flawed. As, according to the 1998 Agreement, and the history of which it is a product, there is not one imagined community in Northern Ireland but (at least) two. Indeed, the picture today is arguably even more complicated.

Since 2006 survey data suggests that, in terms of national identity and constitutional aspiration, the largest group of people in Northern Ireland today are those that identify as being from neither of the two communities that have defined much of the regions’ history. Such political demographic change challenges the assumption that underlies the 1998 Agreement that society in Northern Ireland is made up of (only) unionists and nationalists. This in turn raises questions about how governance in Northern Ireland can or should evolve to reflect its increasingly diverse society and the range of communities people there imagine.

Returning to the UK’s “four nations”. On one level, a critique based on Northern Ireland’s uniqueness is just semantics. Understandings of nation and state are always nuanced and always complex. Moreover, ‘three nations and one divided, post-conflict society still processing its peace’, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

That said, there is also an important point to be made here. For a long time, Northern Ireland has been characterised and treated as ‘a place apart’ in the UK and subject to minimal consideration in UK-wide political debate as a result. This practice creates a perpetual risk that the fragility and complexity of Northern Ireland is not adequately understood by or accommodated in UK government policy. One could argue that the UK government’s (mis)management of arrangements for Northern Ireland throughout the Brexit process have reflected this historical trend.

In any case, if the current UK government are to navigate the growing tensions across the UK union, they might do well to begin using language that engages with the kaleidoscope complexities of community and identity in Northern Ireland which, incidentally, is not a nation.


Dr Lisa Claire Whitten is a Research Fellow on the ESRC-funded ‘Governance for ‘a place between’: the Multilevel Dynamics of Implementing the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland’ based at Queen’s University Belfast.
Lisa Claire Whitten on Twitter

Constitutional History and the Making of the Modern World

What’s happening in Wales, and what does it mean for Ireland-Wales relations?

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s constitutional crisis: Is this time different?

Multilevel Politics, Climate and COP26

Constitutionally Sound podcast