10 Big Differences Between Northern Ireland vs Ireland

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and has 6 counties, while Ireland is an independent country with 26 counties.

Northern Ireland has a predominantly Protestant population and a British-influenced culture, while Ireland has a predominantly Catholic population and a distinct Irish culture.

There are many more differences between the two, like History and Culture. Let’s go into details:

Are Ireland and Northern Ireland two different countries?

Yes, they are two separate countries, although this wasn’t always the case. Right up until the 3rd of May 1921, Ireland was an independent country that was just known as Ireland.

The old country of Ireland fought against the powers of the United Kingdom for many years, battling for their independence and freedom from the colonizing state. It effetely ended up with a separation of Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, the Irish Free State.

Still to this day, Ireland and Northern Ireland are two different countries. Northern Ireland is part of the UK and combines 6 different counties. Whereas Ireland consists of 26 counties.

The 26 Counties of Ireland

Population_density_of_Ireland_map2002.svg: *Ireland_complete.svg: Future Perfect at Sunrisederivative work: The Illusional Ministry (talk)derivative work: Sswonk, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The island of Ireland is still split into four different provinces, an age-old separation that comes from the days of their Gaelic kings. These provinces are Ulster, Munster, Connacht, and Leinster.

Ulster is the one province that crosses the Northern Irish border. All of Northern Ireland is part of Ulster, but this province is also shared with three Republic of Ireland counties, Donegal, Monaghan, and Cavan.

The 4 Provinces of Ireland

Ireland 4 provinces
JRC, DG, ECHO, EC, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland also have their own flags. In the Republic, their flag, affectionately known as the tricolor, was the flag that was adopted during the Irish war of independence and is still their national flag today.

As for Northern Ireland, they have two flags. They fly the Union Jack of the UK but also have their own ‘Ulster Banner’ that is representative of the Irish province they still occupy.

What Are The Main Differences Between Ireland And Northern Ireland?

Although there are many cultural similarities, there are also some big differences between Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland. Let’s work through some of the differences you might need to know.

ireland vs Northern Ireland main differences

War & Conflict

Many wars, such as the Northern Ireland conflict, have shaped Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

One of the most famous conflicts was that of Bloody Sunday, the infamous bombing that led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

Bloody Sunday, which happened on the 30th of January 1972, was one of the darkest times of the Troubles.

While civil rights demonstrators protested in a predominantly Catholic area of Londonderry, thirteen people were shot dead, and at least 15 others were injured when the Army’s Parachute Regiment, part of the British army, opened fire on the civil rights marchers.

The cruelty of the British military spurned forwards the realization that a ceasefire and peace decree was needed. This was the Good Friday Agreement.

Bloody Sunday by Ted Ellis
Ted Ellis, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Also known as the Belfast Agreement, this agreement legislated that Northern Ireland could choose to unite with Ireland if they wished and whenever they wished and that all of those born in Northern Ireland could choose to be recognized as Births, Irish, or even both if they wished and was signed by the British prime minister.

However, Bloody Sunday isn’t the only conflict that shaped these two nations. The Troubles is the description given to the 30-year-long bout of political violence, deadlock, and armed conflict that was fought between the Irish Unionists – British rule supporters and on a whole Protestants – and Irish Republicans – who supported a united Ireland and rejected British rule and tended to be Catholic.

Although these two countries have been plagued with conflict for hundreds of years, it’s no longer Northern Ireland vs Ireland as much anymore and both countries are peaceful. Even if there are still a few rumblings between devout Catholic and Protestant faith groups. A conflict that has managed to stand the test of time.


With the influx of many different cultures and peoples moving to both Ireland and Northern Ireland, both countries have become a bit of a melting pot. However, there are still two predominant faiths. Catholicism and Protestantism.

The Republic of Ireland is a country of predominantly Catholic faith, whereas Northern Ireland is primarily Protestant.

This is also much to do with the rule of Great Britain over the years as the British monarchy were Protestant, and so this faith was pressed upon Northern Ireland Citizens. Yet the republican Irish held onto their Catholic faith.


While many similarities are shared across the cultures of both Ireland and Northern Ireland, there are also some important differences.

Many of these cultural differences are very subtle and may not even be noticeable to visitors.


For example, in Ireland, the commonly spoken tongue is English, but the national language is Irish, more fondly known as Gaeilge, a celt language. Nevertheless, Irish is still very prominent in Ireland, and there are specific areas around Ireland, called Gaeltacht areas, that speak Irish as a first language rather than as a second.

There are even TV channels where most of their program showings are in spoken Irish, such as TG4, and it is a language taught to all pupils from their first year of National School (Primary School) until they reach the end of their high school education.

In Northern Ireland, although there are still some Irish speakers, it isn’t considered to be an official language in Ireland. This is something they are trying to change right now. Even though Irish and Ulster Scots are recognized as regional languages, there’s no officiality behind this. However, they don’t have any specified Gaeltacht areas, and far fewer Northern Irish people are fluent or semi-fluent in Irish.

Both Ireland and Northern also use different units of measurement. In Northern Ireland, the imperial system is used, and in Ireland, they use the metric system. So you will see miles per hour in Northern Ireland and Kilometers per hour in the Republic of Ireland.

Death & Funerals

Another cultural difference that a visitor may never actually experience is each country’s behavior around the death of loved ones. This has a lot to do with their religious beliefs. For example, in Northern Ireland, when someone passes, they are sent to the morgue, where they rest until the day they are buried and this burial could be up to 2 weeks after a person’s passing.

However, because of the Catholic faith in Ireland, funerals are handled very differently. Unless there is some reason to perform an autopsy, the person who has passed will be sent to a morgue. There they are dressed and then returned to their home in their coffin.

This vigil is called a wake. The deceased person is placed in the home for up to 3 days on average, and the people they loved and those who want to say their goodbyes will come and visit the home, often stopping by the coffin to speak a passing prayer.

This wake is almost like an act of support, it isn’t morbid or sad but more of a celebration. Food and drink are brought by guests and made by the deceased’s family; many will sit around telling stories and sharing memories.


Accents are also another big thing. The stereotypical Irish accent will have you believe that everyone in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland sounds the same. Still, there’s a massive variation between regional and national dialects.

When you are there, you will notice as you travel from one country to another, and even one county to another. The further down the country of Ireland you travel the thicker the accent becomes as the influences of the English and Scottish languages and accents become less prevalent.


Both Ireland and Northern Ireland have their own football associations. In Northern Ireland, the Irish Football Association (IFA) was founded on the 18th of November, 1880 and is still running to this day.

The Republic of Ireland has its governing football association, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), and it was formed in September 1921 by the Irish Free State.

Ireland and Northern Ireland soccer

Like other countries, football holds a special place with the Irish people, and although many will support teams from the UK, even in the Republic of Ireland, they have a strong loyalty to their local and national clubs.

This naturally breeds some football-related rivalry between each of the Irish countries but for the most part, it’s in good jest.


Because of Northern Ireland’s attachment to Great Britain, it’s unsurprising that they also share the same currency, the British pound. However, in the Republic of Ireland, they use the Euro. They adopted this currency in 1999, although the Euro didn’t go into circulation until January 2002.

Before 2002, the Republic of Ireland used its national currency, the Irish pound, better known as the Punt. They used the pound symbol used for the British pound, but it was a completely different currency.

Thanks to the invisible border that both countries share there are many shops along the border. They will accept denominations of the other currency for payment. If a commercial premise agrees with the other currency, there will usually be a sign stating that either ‘Euro’s are accepted’ or ‘Sterling accepted here’.

As for the population differences between Northern Ireland and Ireland, just by looking at a map, you can see that Northern Ireland is far smaller than the Irish Free State. So it goes without saying that there is a much larger population in the Republic of Ireland.

Northern Ireland has an average population of around 1.8 million people, with approximately 630,000 living in the Northern Irish capital, Belfast.

The Republic of Ireland has a population of around 4.8 million with a massive 1.255 million people living in the country’s capital city, Dublin.


Irish politics differ significantly between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

In Northern Ireland, the Queen of England, currently Queen Elizabeth II, is recognized as the head of state, and they have their devolved government, the Northern Ireland Assembly. A devolved parliament means that they have handed over judiciary power to the British government when it involves:

. Reserved Matters – civil aviation, units of measurement, human genetics, etc

. Excepted Matters – international relations, taxation, elections

All other matters are the responsibility of the Northern Ireland government. The Northern Irish political parties are also afforded eight seats in the houses of parliament, which are allocated through a public vote. The political parties that tend to hold more polarity with the people of Northern Ireland are Sinn Fein, SDLP, and DUP.

The Republic of Ireland has its own Irish parliament called the Oireachtas, split into the upper house, Seanad Éireann, and the lower house, Dáil Éireann, which has more political power than the former.

Their government also includes a publicly voted President of Ireland. However, this is a predominantly ceremonial position with limited powers and their Taoiseach, which is a similar position to that of the Prime Minister in the UK and is considered to be the head of government. This segregation of power was created to allow the free reign of democracy within the country.

Their oldest political parties are Sinn Fein, Fianna Fáil, and Fine Gael. Although smaller, more independent political parties have become instrumental in the Republic of Ireland’s government, such as the Green Party, Labour Party, and social democrats over the years.

Sinn Fein is the only political party crossing the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. They are very open about their desires to reunite the whole of Ireland and have strong ties to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) from the early 70s-90s, but this hasn’t stopped th


The infrastructure of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is very similar. Much of their old homes and important historical places were crafted using similar building methods.

One big difference between Northern Ireland and Ireland is their road signs. If you’re unsure whether you’ve crossed the border, the road signs will let you know.

In Northern Ireland, they utilize the imperial system, and all road signs will be in miles per hour. However, once you cross the border, the road signs will not only switch to kilometers per hour, but most signs will include not only the anglicized version of place names but also their original Gaelic names.

This can become incredibly confusing for those who visit Ireland and don’t speak Irish, who venture into Gaeltacht areas where the signs do away with English altogether and display place names and warnings entirely in the Irish language.

History Of Northern Ireland And Ireland

The history of Ireland vs Northern Ireland is notoriously rich and diverse. Some would even say complicated.

So, I will break it down nicely and easily for you with a simple timeline. We could go as far back as medieval Ireland but we’re going to start with the beginning of the end of Ireland as a united country.


The Catholic Pope declared King Henry II of England the feudal lord of Ireland.


Statues of Kilkenny forbid the intermarriage of English citizens and Irish citizens. There was also an unsuccessful attempt to suppress Gaelic culture.


Henry VIII was proclaimed the King of Ireland.


The plantation of Ireland commences under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England. The failed uprising of Hugh O’Neil results in defeat at the Battle of Kindle in 1601 and the end of the Gaelic order.


Cromwell invades England, and his opponents are eventually stripped of their land under the Act of Settlement.


The Penal Laws, that bar all Catholics from their rights to vote, avail of education, and to join or found military, are enacted.


The American War for Independence lit a fire within the Irish population and causes unrest.


Ireland becomes a part of Great Britain under the Act of Union.


The Great Famine grips Ireland. Over 1 million lives are lost due to starvation and disease. Most of the food the Irish could grow was forcibly sent to England and this resulted in death and mass emigration over the following 10 years.


The implementation of the Home Rule bill, which would give Ireland more of a say as to how it was governed, was postponed due to the beginning of World War I.


Led by Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, and many others, the Easter Rising began. As a result, the leaders of the uprising were executed and caused public opinion to shy away from the English monarchy. The Easter Rising fuelled support in favor of the rebels.


Michael Collins leads the Irish war of independence against Great Britain and the Irish Free State is created but excludes the 6 counties of Northern Ireland.


The Irish Civil War broke out over the Anglo-Irish treaty between the pro-treaty parties and the anti-treaty Irish Republican Army.


Ireland remained a neutral political and military position during WW2, much to the embarrassment of Great Britain, even though they offered a unified Ireland to the Irish people if they entered the war on behalf of the allies.


Ireland was declared a republic by John A. Costello, a member of the Sinn Fein party, and Northern Ireland was declared to be a separate entity.


The Troubles, a period of violence, conflict, and fear, begins thanks to a civil rights march in Derry on the 5th of October.


Rioting between Catholics and Protestants builds, and civil rights marches escalate. Finally, British troops are called in to keep order, but this turns out to just add fuel to the already brightly burning fire of riots.


The Provisional IRA begins to campaign to oust all British troops from Ireland


The Republic of Ireland Joins the European Union


The Irish and British governments signed the Anglo-Irish treaty, an agreement that hoped to end the troubles.


There is a peace declaration, and the IRA agreed to a ceasefire.


After the sad events of Bloody Sunday in Derry, the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

What About Brexit?

The threat of Brexit put the position of the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement on really shaky ground. Many feared the implementation of a hard, physical border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Trade routes were of especially great concern. Would the Republic of Ireland be negatively affected trade-wise thanks to the soft border they shared with neighboring Ireland? Would the Troubles begin all over again?

Thankfully, it seems as though a good agreement has been made. The Republic is still a member state of the European Union, while Northern Ireland has joined the UK in exiting the European Union.

FAQs About Northern Ireland vs Ireland

Are the people of Ireland British?

No, members of the Republic of Ireland are not British. They have Irish nationality.

Is Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland safe?

Yes, both countries are relatively peaceful with only rare instances of conflict, usually fuelled by a group that calls themselves The Real IRA.

Do I Need A Passport To Cross The Irish Border?

No, the border between Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland is an invisible border with no governmental presence.

Do I have to know how to speak Irish?

No, although the Irish language is still very much alive and well, English is the more commonly spoken language in both Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Natasha Peters

I am a British-born copywriter who moved to Ireland over a decade ago and have been captivated by Irish culture, landscape and folklore. I enjoy sharing my passion for Ireland through my writing as a freelancer.

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