Freedom in the World - Northern Ireland [United Kingdom] (2004)
|Publication Date||18 December 2003|
|Cite as||Freedom House, Freedom in the World - Northern Ireland [United Kingdom] (2004), 18 December 2003, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/473c54b228.html [accessed 18 May 2013]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
Political Rights: 2
Civil Liberties: 2
Life Expectancy: N/A
Religious Groups: Protestant (58 percent), Roman Catholic (42 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Irish [majority]
The Northern Ireland assembly based at Stormont, whose work stopped in October 2002 after a dispute between Catholic and Protestant parties over the decommissioning of arms by former terrorists, remained suspended throughout 2003. An election in November for a new assembly gave the largest share of seats to the more extreme parties on both sides of the divide, including one that flatly rejects the Good Friday agreement of 1998 that set up the power-sharing agreement. The assembly will not continue working until some form of cooperation reemerges.
After the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland) was created out of most of the island of Ireland, with six Protestant-majority counties in the Irish province of Ulster remaining in the United Kingdom as the British province of Northern Ireland. Catholics now constitute a majority in four of the six counties, causing concern among Protestants, who are largely descended from English and Scottish settlers.
A nonviolent Catholic civil rights movement emerged in the 1960s. When Britain sent troops – which are still there today – trouble in the province increased, and sectarian violence grew during the 1970s. The Northern Irish parliament, established by the British in 1920, was suspended in 1972. Terrorist acts were committed by extremists on both sides of the Catholic (Republican) and Protestant (Unionist) divide. Negotiations over peace began in 1996. In 1997, a cease-fire by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and an agreement by Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, to participate in peace talks was secured.
With the help of a former U.S. senator, George Mitchell, the Good Friday agreement was reached in 1998. It established the principle of consent, under which it was agreed that Northern Ireland's status would not change without the consent of a majority of its population, and established several cross-border institutions with the Republic of Ireland. The constitution of the republic was amended to remove its claim to the North. All of the major political parties, save one hard-line Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists, signed the agreement. The governments of Britain and the Irish republic strongly supported it as well, and it passed referendums both in the North and in the republic. The agreement created a 108-member Northern Ireland assembly at Stormont in Belfast.
Parties in favor of the agreement dominated the assembly's first elections in 1998, and a power-sharing government was installed with David Trimble, of the moderate Ulster Unionist Party, as first minister. Sinn Fein also took part in the government. The agreement required decommissioning of weapons by the IRA, however, and over the life of the assembly, frustration mounted with the IRA's slow, secretive, and therefore difficult-to-verify moves to put its weapons "beyond use." In October 2002, the assembly was suspended after police raided Sinn Fein headquarters and found documents that may be useful to terrorists; Trimble demanded that Sinn Fein be ejected from the government.
Efforts to restart the peace process sputtered over the course of 2003. In November, fresh elections were held and, as feared, gave increased power to the rejectionist Democratic Unionists and to Sinn Fein, now the largest unionist and republican parties, respectively. The moderate Catholic and republican Social Democratic and Labour Party had the worst results. Talks will begin to restore cooperation. To the surprise of many, the Reverend Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionists' fiery leader, has said that his party hopes to be "constructive."
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
The people of Northern Ireland may vote for members of the British Parliament sitting in London and for the Northern Ireland Assembly, which ran many local affairs before it was suspended. A free and fair election was held in November 2003 for the assembly, and the political system is open to the rise and fall of competing parties including the Ulster Unionists (moderate unionist), Democratic Unionists (hard-line unionist), the Social Democratic and Labour Party (moderate republican), Sinn Fein (republican, linked to the IRA), and the Alliance Party (interdenominational unionist). The government is largely free of pervasive corruption.
A free and competitive media market exists in Northern Ireland. Newspapers across a broad spectrum of political opinions compete for readers. Although broadcasting is dominated by the state-owned BBC, the corporation is editorially independent of the government. Internet access is unrestricted by the government.
Freedom of religion is protected by law and respected in practice. There is no established church in Northern Ireland, and most religions are officially classified as charities, with the corresponding tax benefits. The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act, enacted in 2001, increases the penalties handed out for assault, harassment, or criminal damage when the crime is "religiously aggravated."
Antiterrorism legislation may restrict the rights of assembly, association, or expression, but it is not generally used to do so, and Northern Ireland enjoys a vibrant civil society. Workers may bargain collectively and strike.
The judiciary is independent. The British cabinet post of Lord Chancellor, which combined executive, legislative, and judicial powers in one office, was abolished in 2003 in favor of a secretary of constitutional affairs. The Law Lords, sitting in the House of Lords of the British Parliament, constitute the highest court in Britain. Northern Irish citizens also have recourse to the European Convention on Human Rights, which was incorporated into Northern Irish law by the Northern Ireland Act of 1998.
In 1999, the Patten Report made recommendations for policing reform in the province. As a result, in 2001 the police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, long seen by Catholics as a tool of Protestant control, became the Police Service of Northern Ireland. An ombudsman was created to provide an independent police-complaints system. The police force now accepts equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants as new recruits, regardless of how many applications from each group are received; it is currently 13 percent Catholic. Prison conditions are generally adequate, but an investigation into prison safety led to a government recommendation to separate unionist and republican paramilitary prisoners in one prison, Maghaberry.
Terrorist violence has subsided since 1998 and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. However, high tensions and occasional low-level violence between the Catholic and Protestant communities remain. On August 7, 2003, Michael McKevitt, the man believed to be the head of the "Real" IRA, a dissident faction that rejects the peace process, was convicted of the offense of "directing terrorism" for his role in the 1998 bombing at Omagh, which killed 29. Bomb scares and hoaxes continue to be used as tools of intimidation and fear-mongering. In June 2003, a massive bomb was intercepted by police in transit in Londonderry.
Gender equality is guaranteed under law. Abortion law is more restrictive in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom, although some abortions are performed legally (usually to protect the mental or physical health of the mother). It has been estimated that 2,000 women travel from Northern Ireland to Great Britain each year to obtain abortions.