Basic terms and concepts

If studying Northern Ireland for the first time, you will encounter some unfamiliar terms and concepts. This glossary defines some basic terms that are essential for understanding the Troubles. More expansive glossary pages can be found on our website (A-K and L-Z).

Our website refers to Catholics and Protestants, Nationalists and Unionists, Republicans and Loyalists using uppercase throughout. Our authors choose to use Derry rather than Londonderry, a reflection of the Catholic majority in that city. Ulster is used in its modern context rather than its traditional meaning. Non-English terms, such as Taoiseach or Dáil Éireann, are italicised. If you wish to suggest a term for inclusion in our glossaries please contact Alpha History.

Who are Catholics and Protestants?

Catholics and Protestants belong to two different branches of Christianity. Roman Catholicism is the oldest form of the Christian religion.

The theology and organisation of the Catholic church date back to the 12 Apostles of Jesus Christ and the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Since then, the Catholic church has been led and guided by the Pope and his office, the Holy See, based in the Vatican City in Rome. Catholic missionaries introduced their religion to Ireland during the 400s. The most famous of these missionaries was a priest named Patrick, who became the patron saint of Ireland.

In 1971, around 80 per cent of people in the Republic of Ireland identified as Catholic. In Northern Ireland, the figure was much lower, with almost 32 per cent of the population identifying as Catholic.

catholics protestants ireland glossary
A map showing the ratio of Catholics to Protestants across Ireland

Protestant religions are much younger than Catholicism. Protestantism emerged in the 16th century as a breakaway movement from the Catholic church. This period is known as the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was instigated by religious leaders like Martin Luther, who questioned the doctrines of the church and protested against some of its rituals (hence the name ‘Protestants’).

The Reformation gave rise to several different Protestant churches, including the Anglicans (Church of England), Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists and Adventists. Protestantism was imported into Ireland, particularly Northern Ireland, by English colonists and settlers. By 1971, approximately 53 per cent of Northern Irelanders belonged to a Protestant religion. The vast majority were members of the Presbyterian Church or the Church of Ireland. In the Republic of Ireland, only four per cent of citizens identified as Protestant.

Who are Nationalists and Republicans?

Two groups you will encounter when studying the Troubles are Nationalists and Republicans. In literal terms, a nationalist is someone who demands political independence and sovereignty for their country while a republican supports a government without a monarchy or hereditary rulers.

In the context of Northern Ireland, the labels Nationalist and Republican are often assumed to mean the same thing: a group or person who believes in a unified Ireland, free from British control. This is a generalisation, however. There may be subtle differences between a Nationalist and a Republican – and some Northern Irelanders may identify as one but not the other.

Some historians and commentators suggest that Nationalists seek Irish reunification through negotiation and peaceful methods while Republicans are more radical and may advocate violence. Most Nationalists and Republicans are Catholic, though the socialists among them may be atheists and a smaller number belong to Protestantism or another faith.

irish nationalism glossary
A Provisional IRA mural emphasising Irish history and nationalism

Who are Unionists and Loyalists?

At the opposite end of the spectrum are Unionists and Loyalists. As with Nationalists and Republicans, many use these terms interchangeably – but there are some subtle but important differences.

The Unionist position is chiefly political: Unionists support the existence of Northern Ireland, its ongoing union with Great Britain and its right to self-government. Loyalists hold a firmer position. Ulster Loyalism draws heavily on British nationalism, history, tradition and culture.

A Loyalist mural containing British symbols

Loyalists venerate the British monarchy and emphasise their historical and cultural ties with Britain. They utilise and cherish British motifs like the Union Jack, the St George’s Cross, the St Andrew’s Cross and symbols of monarchy. Ulster Loyalists are usually more strident and intense than Unionists; some have described them as being ‘more British than Britons’. Loyalism is associated with paramilitary groups while Unionism tends to reside in political parties. Most Unionists and almost all Loyalists are Protestants.

What is sectarianism?

Sectarianism refers to stark and dangerous divisions within a society or community. Sectarian divisions can be based on political differences, class, religion, ethnicity or tribal identity. As these divisions evolve and widen they may lead to bigotry and prejudice, discrimination, tension and conflict.

ireland sectarianism glossary
A Belfast ‘peace line’, one of the most obvious signs of sectarianism

Religious sectarianism between Catholics and Protestants has shaped and disrupted Ireland for centuries. It dates back to the anti-Catholic Penal Laws, passed by English rulers in the late 1600s. Despite this painful history, the sectarian violence of the Troubles was not entirely religious. The civil rights movement of the 1960s exposed the extent to which Northern Ireland’s Catholic population had been marginalised, disenfranchised and suffered discrimination in jobs, education and housing. These revelations fuelled a more potent sectarianism that combined political, economic, religious and cultural differences.

What is Ulster?

Ulster is a name for the northern regions of Ireland. Ulster has both historical and modern interpretations. Traditionally, the name Ulster referred to nine counties in the north of Ireland: Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, Monaghan and Tyrone. When Ireland was partitioned in 1920, six of these counties (Antrim, Amargh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone) were combined to form Northern Ireland.

ulster map
A map showing the nine counties of Ulster, with Northern Ireland shaded pink

From this point, the name Ulster assumed different meanings for Nationalists and Loyalists. When Nationalists say “Ulster” it is usually in its traditional context, a reference to the nine northern counties that once belonged to Ireland. When Loyalists use the word “Ulster”, they refer to the six counties of Northern Ireland under British sovereignty. These disputes over the meaning of a single word are symbolic of the historical divisions in Northern Ireland.

What are paramilitary groups?

A paramilitary group is an organisation that resembles a military force. Most paramilitary groups have a strategic mission, employ some form of command structure and use military-style training and tactics. They assemble caches of weapons, engage in espionage and produce propaganda.

Unlike military forces, paramilitary groups are not organised or sanctioned by the state. These groups have no formal connections with the government and often operate outside the law. For this reason, paramilitary volunteers usually conceal their identity, wearing balaclavas or similar.

paramilitary groups
A mural depicting paramilitary volunteers in action

Several paramilitary groups were active in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. These groups are categorised as either Republican or Loyalist. Republican paramilitary groups included the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its various splinter groups – the Provisional IRA, the Official IRA, the Continuity IRA, the Real IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). The main Loyalist paramilitary groups were the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF). These groups were responsible for the vast majority of deaths and injuries inflicted during the Troubles.

Visit our glossary pages A-K and L-Z for definitions of more specific topics related to the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Citation information
Title: “Northern Ireland glossary”
Authors: Rebekah Poole, Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: October 22, 2017
Date accessed: August 15, 2019
Copyright: The content on this page may not be republished without our express permission. For more information on usage, please refer to our Terms of Use.