Northern Ireland glossary

This Northern Ireland glossary contains definitions of terms and concepts relating to the history of Northern Ireland and the Troubles, 1969 to 1998. It has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors:

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32 County Sovereignty Movement (or 32CSM)
A radical Republican group, formed in 1997 to oppose the Good Friday Agreement. The 32CSM demands an end to partition, the reunification of Ireland and the withdrawal of British sovereignty. It is aligned with the Real IRA and considered to be a terrorist organisation.

The practice of refusing to vote or accept an elected position. Abstention was a policy employed at various times by Sinn Fein, which contested and won seats in the Republic of Ireland and British parliaments but often refused to take up these seats.

Act of Union
A 1801 British law that joined England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland as the United Kingdom.

Anglo-Irish Agreement (or Hillsborough Accord)
An agreement signed by the governments of Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland in Hillsborough in November 1985. It gave Dublin a consultative role in the government of Northern Ireland but affirmed that the status of Northern Ireland would not change unless a majority of its citizens agreed to this.

Apprentice Boys of Derry
A Loyalist group that commemorates the 1688 Catholic siege of Derry with an annual march.

Armalite and the Ballot Box
A name given to the strategy employed by Sinn Fein and the IRA in the 1980s, combining participation in elections with paramilitary attacks on British, RUC and Loyalist targets.

B Specials
Members of the Ulster Special Constabulary, called upon to assist the RUC in times of emergency. Members of the B-Specials were predominately Unionist and were considered by Nationalists to be provocative, thuggish and biased.

The administrative capital and largest city in Northern Ireland.

Belfast Agreement
See Good Friday Agreement.

Birmingham Six
A name given to six men who in 1975 were wrongfully convicted of bombing pubs in Birmingham, England. All six were Catholics born in Northern Ireland. They spent 16 years in prison before being released on appeal in 1991.

Blanket Protests
A five-year protest (1976-81) by Republican prisoners held in HM Prison Maze, in opposition to the British government’s withdrawal of Special Category Status. The protest was so named because participants refused to wear prison uniforms, instead wrapping themselves in sheets and blankets.

Bloody Friday
Refers to a day of violence on July 21st 1972, when the Provisional IRA detonated a series of bombs across Belfast, killing nine people and injuring almost 140 others.

Bloody Sunday 1920
Refers to violence in Dublin on November 21st 1920, starting with a wave of IRA assassinations and culminating with the shooting of civilians at a football match at Croke Park.

Bloody Sunday 1972 (or the Bogside Massacre)
The January 30th 1972 shooting of 27 unarmed protesters by British soldiers in Derry. Of those shot, 14 died from their injuries, half of them teenagers.

A suburban area in Derry, across the River Foyle from the city centre. The residents of Bogside are predominately working-class, Catholic and Republican. Bogside was the site of considerable violence in August 1969.

Border Poll
The Northern Ireland sovereignty referendum, organised by the British government and held in March 1973. At the instigation of Sinn Fein and the SDLP, the referendum was boycotted by most Nationalists. Almost 58.7 per cent of the electorate voted with 98.9 per cent indicating that they wanted to remain part of Great Britain.

Brighton hotel bombing
An assassination attempt on British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, carried out by the Provisional IRA in October 1984. Bombs were planted in a Brighton hotel were the Conservative Party was holding a conference. Thatcher was unharmed but five people, including a sitting MP, were killed.

Cameron Report
A written report on the causes of civil unrest and violence in Northern Ireland between October 1968 and March 1969. The report was compiled by Scottish judge Lord Cameron and handed down in September 1969.

The oldest and largest form of Christianity in the world and the official religion of the Republic of Ireland. In Northern Ireland, Catholics make up approximately 40 per cent of the population and tend to have Nationalist or Republican political views.

A road block or station manned by armed personnel, to monitor or prevent access to a particular area. Most checkpoints in Northern Ireland were operated by the British Army or RUC, however the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries often set up checkpoints.

civil rights movement
A movement that emerged in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and sought to end political and economic discrimination against Catholics.

Compton Report
A 1971 report into the allegations of violence against security forces during the period of internment. It followed an investigation into five groups of allegations, in addition to allegations brought by 20 individuals. The report found that internees had not suffered physical brutality, despite admitting that they had been subject to exhausting compulsory exercise, hooding, wrist and ankle bonds and sleep deprivation.

Continuity Irish Republican Army (or Continuity IRA, CIRA)
A radical Republican paramilitary group, formed during a Provisional IRA split in the mid-1980s. The Continuity IRA was notably active following the Provisional IRA’s 1994 ceasefire, when it continued paramilitary violence. The group murdered a PSNI officer in 2009.

An order preventing all civilians from leaving their homes during certain hours, usually nighttime.

Dail Eireann (or Dail)
The lower house of the Oireachtas, or Republic of Ireland parliament. Also the name of the assembly formed by Irish Republicans as an alternative government in 1919.

Democratic Unionist Party (or DUP).
The largest Unionist party in Northern Ireland. It was formed in 1971 from the Protestant Union Party and led by Ian Paisley for almost 37 years.

A local name for Londonderry, the second-largest city in Northern Ireland.

Direct Rule
The withdrawal of Northern Ireland self-government, legislated by the British parliament in March 1972. Under Direct Rule, both the Northern Ireland parliament and executive were abolished; policy was instead decreed by a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Direct Rule was intended to be a temporary measure while political and civil unrest was stabilised – however it was not permanently ended until 2007.

Dirty Protest
A campaign of non-compliance carried out by Irish Republicans detained in HM Prison Maze, beginning in 1978. Prisoners participating in the protest refused to leave their cells to wash, shower or use lavatories, leading to unsanitary conditions.

Easter Rising
An armed insurrection against British rule, launched by Republicans in Dublin in April 1916. The uprising was crushed by the British military and 16 Irish leaders were arrested and executed.

Falls Road curfew
A July 1970 British Army operation, carried out in Belfast’s Falls district, a Republican stronghold. The area was closed and residents were ordered to remain in their homes, while 3,000 British soldiers conducted door to door searches for paramilitary weapons. Four civilians were shot dead by the British Army during the curfew, while numerous civilians and soldiers were injured.

A member of the Fenian Brotherhood, a militant 19th century Irish Republican group. More recently it has been used as a derogatory term for Irish Republicans, particularly those who employ violence or terrorism.

First Minister
The head of government of Northern Ireland, a position created in 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. There are two First Ministers who share equal power; they are nominated by the two largest parties in the Northern Ireland assembly. To date, all First Ministers have been either Unionist (UUP or DUP) or Republican (SDLP or Sinn Fein).

flag protests
Loyalist protests beginning in late 2012, in response to Belfast City Council’s decision to impose limitations on the flying of the Union Jack over City Hall.

Gardai (or Garda, Garda Siochana)
The police force of the Republic of Ireland.

The practice of contriving a particular election result by drawing up electoral boundaries in a certain way. In Northern Ireland gerrymandering divided the voting power of Catholics and ensured that Protestants were unfairly represented in the parliament at Stormont.

Glenanne Gang
A group of Loyalist extremists who committed murders and violence against Catholics and Nationalists during the 1970s. The Glenanne Gang is believed to be responsible for more than 80 murders, the majority in and around County Armagh. The group is believed to have contained members of the UVF, UDR and RUC.

Good Friday Agreement (or Belfast Agreement)
An agreement signed on April 10th 1998 by Northern Ireland political parties and the governments of Great Britain and Ireland. The agreement addresses issues including civil and cultural rights, the decommissioning of weapons and security issues.

Green Book
A training manual given to IRA recruits in the 1970s. It contained information on the IRA, its history and mission, as well as instructions regarding military operations, secrecy and personal conduct for volunteers.

Guildford Four
A group of four people, including Gerard Conlon, who in 1975-76 were wrongfully convicted of carrying out the bombing of pubs in Guildford, England. Their convictions were quashed in 1989 after it was proved that police had tampered with or concealed important evidence prior to trial.

Home Rule
A political arrangement where a region or province is permitted a large degree of autonomy and self-government, usually through its own parliament and/or executive council. In the context of Ireland, Home Rule was finalised and legislated by the British parliament in 1920 after several failed attempts.

interface areas
Describes suburban or residential areas where Nationalist and/or Catholic populations live in close proximity to Unionist and/or Protestant populations. These areas were often flashpoints for sectarian clashes or conflict. Many interface areas were and still are divided by peace lines.

The policy of detaining suspected paramilitary personnel without trial, initiated in August 1971 by the Unionist-led Northern Ireland government. Almost 2,000 people were interned before the practice was stopped in late 1975.

See Republic of Ireland.

Irish National Liberation Army (or INLA).
A Republican paramilitary organisation formed in late 1974 with the aim of creating an independent and socialist Ireland. The group was responsible for the 1979 murder of Airey Neave, a close associate of Margaret Thatcher, and the 1997 assassination of prominent Loyalist Billy Wright.

Irish Free State
The name given to self-governing Ireland between 1921 and 1937, when it began the transition to an independent republic.

Irish Republican Army (or IRA).
Various Republican and Nationalist paramilitary groups have claimed ownership of this name. The ‘original’ IRA was formed in the wake of the Easter 1916 Rising and contributed to the formation of the independent Republic of Ireland. Between 1922 and 1969 the IRA referred to a paramilitary group dedicated to ridding Ireland of all British control and influence. From 1969 the IRA fractured into several splinter groups, including the Official IRA, the Provisional IRA, the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA.

Irish tricolour
The three-coloured flag of the Republic of Ireland, also used by many Republicans in Northern Ireland. Its three colours represent the Gaelic heritage of Ireland (green), peace (white) and Protestantism (orange).

The intentional shooting, smashing or piercing of the kneecap, which causes permanent structural damage and disfigurement, leaving the victim lame or disabled. It was occasionally used by Irish paramilitary groups.

Loyalist (or Ulster Loyalist)
An individual or group in Northern Ireland who is loyal to Great Britain. This term is sometimes synonymously with Unionist.

Maze (or The Maze, Long Kesh)
Her Majesty’s Prison Maze, a correctional and detention facility located just outside Belfast. Maze was used to house political and paramilitary prisoners during the Troubles.

Miami Showband massacre
The killing of three members of a Dublin-based band by Loyalist paramilitary soldiers in July 1975.

Mitchell Principles
A set of rules or guidelines that applied to all participants in the peace talks during the mid 1990s. They were name for Senator George Mitchell. Among the Mitchell Principles were a renunciation of violence and paramilitary activity and a commitment to a democratic peace process.

An individual or group in favour of national independence. In the case of Ireland, Nationalists generally support the withdrawal of British sovereignty in Northern Ireland and the unification of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Nationalist is sometimes used synonymously with Republican.

Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (or NICRA)
A group formed in 1967 to lobby for the creation of an equal Northern Ireland, with opportunities and progress for all people regardless of religion. The group pushed for an end to discrimination against Catholics in employment and housing allocation, as well as electoral gerrymandering. NICRA did contain some moderate Unionists but was dominated by Catholic and Nationalist interests.

Official Irish Republican Army (or OIRA)
The Official IRA split from the Provisional IRA in 1969. It was the more moderate of the two factions, engaging in some violence during the Troubles but generally pushing for a socialist republic through pressure and negotiation. The Official IRA was also the paramilitary group most closely aligned with Sinn Fein.

Oireachtas (or Oireachtas Eireann)
The parliament of the Republic of Ireland, comprised of the Dail (lower house) and Seanad (upper house).

Omagh bombing
A car bombing carried out by the Real IRA in Omagh, County Tyrone, on August 15th 1998. It killed 29 people, including several children – the highest civilian casualty of any incident during the Troubles.

Operation Banner
The operational name used by the British military for its presence and actions in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, 1969 to 2007.

Operation Demetrius
The operational name for a two-day series of raids carried out by British forces in Northern Ireland in early August 1971. A total of 342 suspected republican paramilitary personnel were arrested, interrogated and interned during Operation Demetrius.

Operation Motorman
A large-scale British military operation in July-August 1972, aimed at regaining control of Republican-held areas in Northern Ireland cities, particularly Belfast and Derry.

Orange Order (or Orange Lodge, Orangemen)
A Protestant men’s organisation based in Belfast, bearing some similarities to the Freemasons. The Orange Order is a harbour for staunch Unionist political values and some of its prominent members include Ian Paisley and Jeffrey Donaldson. Until 1998 the Orangemen marched through Catholic areas of Portadown in July each year, an event that heightened tensions between the two.

Describes a civilian group that adopts military training, weaponry and tactics but is not the official military of a nation or state. The IRA, UDF and several other organisations were or are regarded as paramilitary groups.

Partition (or Partition of Ireland, Irish Partition)
The 1920 division of Ireland into two separate sections: the South (Irish Free State, later the Republic of Ireland) and the North (Northern Ireland).

peace lines
Barriers and high walls separating Nationalist-Catholic and Unionist-Protestant residential areas in Northern Ireland cities. At the height of the Troubles there were more than 40 of these barriers in residential interface areas, some more than a mile (1.6 kilometres) in length.

Police Service of Northern Ireland (or PSNI)
A civilian police force which replaced the RUC in 2001… and are made up of 50% Catholics and 50% Protestants.

In the context of Northern Ireland, an arrangement where executive power is shared by both Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists. A power-sharing arrangement was contained in the Sunningdale Agreement but never implemented. A power-sharing government was eventually formed in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement.

A group of Christian churches and denominations, formed after a split with the Catholic church in the 1500s. Protestants make up approximately 45 per cent of the population of Northern Ireland. The largest Protestant denominations there are the Presbyterian Church of Ireland and the Church of Ireland, the Irish branch of Anglicanism. Protestants in Northern Ireland tend also to be Unionists.

Protestant Ascendancy
Refers to the late 1600s and 1700s, when English and Irish Protestants ruled Ireland unchallenged, while Irish Catholics were deprived of political, civil and economic rights by the Penal Laws.

Protestant Union Party (or PUP)
A Unionist political party and social lobby group, formed in 1966 and active during the early years of the Troubles. Led by Ian Paisley, the PUP had stronger religious ties and was more Loyalist and socially conservative than the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). The PUP was re-formed as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in 1971.

Provisional Irish Republican Army (or Provisional IRAPIRA, ‘Provos’)
A paramilitary group formed in 1969 after the split with the Official IRA in 1969. The Provisional IRA aimed to drive the British out of Northern Ireland by making it impossible to govern effectively. It was consequently more radical than the Official IRA and more inclined to employ violence and terrorism.

See Provisional IRA.

proxy bombing
A terrorist tactic occasionally used by the IRA where individuals, usually suspected collaborators, were forced to drive car bombs at British or Loyalist targets.

Real Irish Republican Army (or Real IRARIRA)
A radical splinter group formed after a 1997 split in the Provisional IRA. The Real IRA was responsible for the 1998 Omagh bombing, the Massereene barracks killings and other terrorist attacks. It continues to exist but is now an illegal organisation.

Red Hand Commando (or RHC)
A small Loyalist paramilitary force formed in 1972 and associated with the Ulster Volunteer Force. The RHC has committed dozens of murders since its formation in 1972. Among their victims are several Protestants, killed either by accident or because they associated too closely with Catholics. It is named for the Red Hand of Ulster, a traditional symbol of the region.

Any individual or group who supports the removal of British sovereignty from Northern Ireland. Most Republicans believe the six counties of Northern Ireland should be absorbed into the Republic of Ireland; others believe in the creation of a separate Republic of Northern Ireland.

Republic of Ireland (or the Irish Republic)
The independent nation of Ireland, formed by the passing of the 1937 constitution.

Royal Irish Constabulary (or RIC)
The state police force in Ireland from the early 19th century to the partition of Ireland in 1922. RIC officers were involved in significant incidents such as Bloody Sunday (1920) and the Irish War of Independence.

Royal Ulster Constabulary (or RUC)
The state police force of Northern Ireland between 1922 and 2001. The RUC was often accused of Unionist leanings, discrimination against Catholics and possible links with Unionist paramilitary groups. More than 300 RUC officers were killed during the Troubles.

rubber bullets
Rubber-coated projectiles that can be fired from ordinary weapons or specialised riot guns. Rubber bullets were used by British security forces in Northern Ireland from August 1970. Though meant to be non-lethal, rubber or plastic bullets killed 17 people during the Troubles, many of them children.

scheduled offences
A category of offences involving violence, terrorism or paramilitary activity, deemed to be linked with the Troubles in Northern Ireland rather than criminal activities.

Describes divisions between two groups that leads to tension, unrest or violence. These divisions can be based on their perceived religious or political differences. In the context of Northern Ireland, sectarianism generally refers to the divisions between between Unionists and Nationalists and/or Protestants and Catholics.

The belief that for any significant political or constitutional change to occur, it must be endorsed by a majority of the nation’s population. In the context of Northern Ireland, the principle of self-determination requires majority support for withdrawal from Great Britain, the formation of a republic and/or union with the Republic of Ireland.

Shankill Butchers
A Loyalist assassination squad, believed to be UVF members, that was responsible for at least 19 deaths during the mid-1970s.

Sinn Fein
A Republican political party formed in 1905 and active both in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Its name translates to ‘Ourselves Alone’. During the Troubles Sinn Fein presented itself as a legitimate political party, though it had close ties with the Official IRA. During the 1970s and early 1980s Sinn Fein, despite its widespread popular support, refused to participate in elections for the British and Northern Ireland parliaments. This policy of abstentionism was reversed in the 1980s under the leadership of Gerry Adams. The party was reformed in 1986 and later participated in ceasefire and peace negotiations with Tony Blair, leading to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

Six Counties
Refers to the six Ulster counties that comprise Northern Ireland: Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone.

Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP)
A Nationalist political party formed in Stormont in 1970 by breakaway members of several other parties. The SDLP called for an end to British rule in Northern Ireland, however it rejected violence as a means for achieving this. It was the most popular Nationalist party in Northern Ireland, until the rise of the reformed Sinn Fein in the early-1990s.

South Armagh Republican Action Force
A Provisional IRA splinter group based in County Armagh. The Republican Action Force carried out numerous attacks and killings in the mid 1970s, in breach of an IRA ceasefire.

Special Category Status (or SCS)
A political status granted to prisoners convicted of scheduled offences, such as paramilitary violence or terrorism. SCS inmates were given ‘war prisoner’ status and entitled to additional privileges, including the right not to work or wear prison uniforms. SCS was granted by the British government in July 1972 and withdrawn in March 1976. Persons convicted of relevant offences were treated no differently to prisoners convicted of criminal offences.

Special Powers Act
The shortened name of the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act, passed by the Northern Ireland parliament in 1922. The act gave the government sweeping powers to deal with paramilitary groups, suppress civil disorder and ban publications; however it was generally used to target Nationalist groups and publications.

A colloquial term for a British soldier.

An area east of Belfast which is the location of the Northern Ireland assembly building and Stormont Castle, the meeting place of Northern Ireland’s executive government.

Sunningdale Agreement
Signed in December 1973, this agreement attempted to end Direct Rule by restoring the Northern Ireland government and forming a power-sharing arrangement with representatives from Dublin. Unionists, always concerned about interference from the Republic, caused the agreement to collapse within six months.

A derogatory term for an Irish Catholic, generally used by Ulster Loyalists.

The head of government of the Republic of Ireland, the equivalent of its prime minister.

The Troubles
An umbrella term for political, nationalist and sectarian tension and conflict in Northern Ireland, between the late 1960s and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

A medieval name for the northernmost nine counties of Ireland, six of which now constitute Northern Ireland. The term is favoured by Loyalists and not widely used by Nationalists. It is occasionally used as a synonym for Northern Ireland, though this can be misleading.

Ulster Defence Association (or UDA)
A Loyalist paramilitary formed in 1971 and dedicated to maintaining union with Great Britain and defending Protestants in Northern Ireland. The UDA has carried out scores of attacks on Republican and Catholic targets, both in Northern Ireland and the Republic. When conducting or claiming responsibility for these attacks it uses the name Ulster Freedom Fighters, to avoid political recriminations for the UDA.

Ulster Defence Regiment (or UDR)
A specialist regiment of the British army, formed in 1970 by recruiting Protestant and Catholic volunteers from Northern Ireland. The UDR replaced the B-Specials in Northern Ireland and was tasked with responding to sabotage, terrorism and paramilitary attacks, as well as providing limited support to the RUC.

Ulster Freedom Fighters (or UFF)
The name given to the paramilitary brigades of the UDA and sometimes the UDA itself.

Ulster Special Constabulary
See B Specials.

Ulster Unionist Party (or UUP)
The oldest Unionist political party in Northern Ireland, formed in 1905. The UUP was the dominant party in Northern Ireland, forming government there between 1921 and 1972. It split in 1969 over prime minister Terence O’Neill’s reforms and later lost ground to Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Ulster Volunteer Force (or UVF)
A Loyalist paramilitary group formed in the mid-1960s and dedicated to protecting and advancing Unionism, Unionists and Protestants. The UVF was active for more than 40 years and was responsible for almost 500 killings, the majority of the victims being Catholic civilians.

Ulster Workers’ Council (or UWC)
A Loyalist workers’ union established in 1974, chiefly to oppose the power-sharing government proposed in the Sunningdale Agreement. The UWC helped undermine Sunningdale by organising general strikes in May 1974.

In the context of Ireland, unification refers to the

Unionist (or Loyalist)
Any individual or group that believes Northern Ireland should remain a part of Great Britain. The majority of Unionists are Protestants.

Union Jack
The national flag of the United Kingdom, adopted after the Act of Union. It contains the overlaid crosses of St George (England), St Andrew (Scotland) and St Patrick (Ireland).

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This page was written by Rebekah Poole, Jennifer Llewelyn and Brian Doone. To reference this page, use the following citation:
R. Poole et al, “Northern Ireland glossary”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],