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The Key Differences Between Northern Ireland Vs Ireland

The Key Differences Between Northern Ireland Vs Ireland

The island of Ireland is split into two jurisdictions: Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom while the Republic of Ireland is an independent, sovereign nation..

There is no physical border between the two, but there are many differences between Ireland and Northern Ireland to be aware of.

Below, I’ll take you through:

  • Key differences: Governance, currency, customs and more
  • Counties: There are 32 in Ireland, 6 of which are located in NI
  • The split: A brief history of the Partition of Ireland

An overview of the differences between Northern Ireland vs Ireland

differences between northern ireland vs ireland

The story of Northern Ireland and Ireland is a long one, but I have done my best to summarise it in several easy-to-follow points.

I’ll take you through the differences between the Republic of Ireland vs Northern Ireland, first, and then I’ll explain the Partition of Ireland.


1. Two countries on the one island

differences between northern ireland vs ireland

The main difference between Northern Ireland vs Ireland is that they are 2 separate countries.

  • The Republic of Ireland is a sovereign state of around 5 million people that’s part of the European Union
  • Northern Ireland has a population of around 1.9 million and is part of the United Kingdom

Essentially, after being ruled (officially) for over a century from London by the British, Ireland achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1922.

Owing to religious, cultural and trading links to the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland almost immediately rejoined the United Kingdom.

This left the Republic of Ireland a free state of 26 counties. It remains that way to this day.


2. The counties of Ireland and Northern Ireland

Another notable difference between Northern Ireland vs Republic of Ireland is the counties. The island of Ireland has a total of 32 counties.

The 6 Northern Ireland counties are: Antrim, Armagh, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Down and Derry.

The 26 counties in the Republic of Ireland are:

  • Leinster: Carlow, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Longford, Louth, Meath, Offaly, Westmeath, Wexford, Wicklow
  • Munster: Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, Clare and Waterford
  • Connacht: Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon, and Sligo
  • Ulster: Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal

There is no physical border: Although many maps will lead you to believe otherwise, there is no physical border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. There has, however, been much debate about borders in recent years as a result of the UK leaving the EU post Brexit.


3. Governance: President v King

Áras an Uachtaráin

Photos via Shutterstock

Another key difference between Northern Ireland vs Ireland is that they are governed separately. The Republic of Ireland is a parliamentary constitutional republic.

Since 1998, Northern Ireland has had a devolved government within the United Kingdom, lead by the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Ireland’s Head of State is the President of Ireland (currently Michael D. Higgins) while Northern Ireland’s head of state is Charles III.

The day-to-day governing of both countries, however, is done by their respective Prime Ministers (known as the ‘Taoiseach’ in Ireland).


4. Languages: Irish vs English

gaelic phrases

Click to enlarge

English is the language most commonly used across both Ireland and Northern Ireland.

However, there are Gaeltacht regions where Irish is spoken as part of every day life.

The Republic of Ireland has two official languages – Irish and English.

Up until 2022, English was the only official language in Northern Ireland. Then the ‘Identity and Language Bill‘ was passed.

This bill gave the Irish language official status in Northern Ireland. Irish can now be used in courts and an Irish commissioner was appointed.


5. Different capitals: Dublin v Belfast


Photos by Tony Pleavin via Ireland’s Content Pool

Another notable difference between Northern Ireland vs Ireland is that both have an official capital city.

With an urban population of 1,173,179, Dublin is Ireland’s capital and the largest of several cities in Ireland.

Dublin is also where the national parliament of Ireland (Oireachtas) is located at Leinster House. 

Northern Ireland’s largest city is Belfast and it’s the second-largest city on the island of Ireland, with a population of 483,418.

Belfast is also home to Northern Ireland’s devolved government and power-sharing assembly (Stormont).


6. Currency: Euro v Pound

currency exchange

Left: Oleksandr Filon. Top right: martaposemuckel. Bottom right: 400tmax (Canva)

Currency is one of the more notable differences between Ireland vs Northern Ireland.

Ireland uses the Euro (EUR) whereas Northern Ireland uses the Pound Sterling (GBP), like the rest of the UK.

Ireland uses the Euro (EUR) and has done since January 1999, after spending most of the 20th century using the Irish Pound. 

Just like the rest of their United Kingdom counterparts, Northern Ireland uses the Pound Sterling (GBP).

Even though many transactions these days are cashless, when travelling it’s always handy having some cash on you no matter where you are.


7. Road signs

road signs

Photos via Shutterstock

Another difference between Northern Ireland and Ireland is the road signs.

When you cross the border in Ireland, the landscape probably won’t change much at first glance but the road signs will. 

You’ll notice that all the road signs in Ireland are bilingual, with the Irish language and English both represented.

English place names are all written in capital letters, while their Irish counterparts are all written in a distinctive oblique variant (that looks similar to italic). 

All road signs are written in the same format that you would see in mainland Britain and are all entirely in English.

You’ll also see that speed limits are measured in km/h in Ireland and mph in Northern Ireland.


The Partition of Ireland: A Brief History

The existence of these two separate countries on the same small island is one of the world’s more curious border situations, so we need to go back to the events of the early 20th-century to gain a better understanding of why Northern Ireland exists. 

With its effects still being felt 100 years later, the Partition of Ireland was a seminal moment in Irish history and in the relationship between Ireland and Great Britain. Here’s a brief history of this seismic event:

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland

The british empire

Parts of the world under British control in 1886 by Walter Crane in the Public Domain

Comprising of the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was a sovereign state that existed between 1801 and 1922.

This was the last time that Ireland and Northern Ireland were part of the same constitutional entity before partition. 

Now, even before the existence of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, there had long been a desire for total independence in Ireland.

One major problem, though, for the Irish throughout this time period was that Britain, through rapid modernisation and industrial revolution, had become the world’s dominant power.

With a massive empire and huge resources, the likelihood of independence from Britain for the majority of the 19th-century was unrealistic. Things began to change, however, towards the end of the century.


Home Rule

Home Rule

An anti-home-rule cartoon by Tom Merry in the Public Domain

Lead by the likes of William Shaw and Charles Stewart Parnell, Irish home rule was the dominant topic of British and Irish politics at the end of the 19th-century. 

The concept of Home Rule that had risen from around 1870 differed from earlier demands for Repeal by Daniel O’Connell in the first half of the 19th-century.

Whereas Home Rule meant a constitutional movement towards a national All-Ireland parliament in part under Westminster, ‘Repeal’ meant completely undoing the 1801 Act of Union (which formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland) and the subsequent creation of an entirely independent Irish state.

The Home Rule League campaigned strongly from 1873 and were eventually succeeded by the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1882.


The Home Rule Bill

The Home Rule Bill

Photos via Wikimedia (in the Public Domain)

The impassioned campaigning from those involved eventually lead to the First Home Rule Bill in 1886, a key moment in the Northern Ireland vs Ireland story.

Introduced by Prime Minister William Gladstone, it was the first major attempt made by a British government to enact a law creating home rule for part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

While this bill ultimately failed, it lead to several more over the subsequent years with each one adding to the movement’s momentum

In fact, the Third Irish Home Rule Bill of 1914 was passed with Royal Assent as the Government of Ireland Act 1914, but never came into force thanks to the outbreak of the First World War.


The interruption of the First World War

Ireland posters

Posters in the Public Domain

A seismic event that would go on to have ramifications for the rest of the century on a global scale, the outbreak of the First World War effectively put paid to any hope of having Home Rule implemented, at least for the time being. 

With Britain now engaged in fighting across Europe as part of the Triple Entente alongside France and Russia, all of its resources and time were put into the war effort.

But while this was hugely frustrating to all the campaigners and architects of Home Rule who were so close to seeing their goal implemented, it also represented an opportunity for some who looked to take advantage while Britain had its back turned.


The 1916 Easter Rising

1916 Rising

O’Connell Street, Dublin in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising via the NLI

The 1916 Easter Rising, an armed insurrection launched by Irish republicans against British rule in Ireland, is another key event in the Northern Ireland vs Ireland conflict.

It had the aim of establishing an independent Irish Republic while Britain was fighting the First World War

Lead by the likes of Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, it was one of the biggest flash points in the Irish nationalist movement and a total of 455 people lost their lives in the fighting.

Eventually crushed after a week of heavy fighting in Dublin, the harsh British reaction (like the execution of Pearse, Connolly and other belligerents) to the Rising fuelled support for independence and laid the groundwork for independence and the future partition.


The Partition

The Constitution Committee meeting at the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin

The Constitution Committee meeting at the Shelbourne, Dublin via the NLI

Then came the partition of Ireland vs Northern Ireland. The First World War and the Easter Rising only served to exacerbate differences between the largely Unionist north and the rest of Ireland.

In the Catholic south, the once-unpopular Easter rebels immediately became national heroes. But in the Protestant north, their rebellion was regarded as a profound act of betrayal against Great Britain.

With reconciliation between the two communities virtually impossible, it’s no coincidence that partition took place in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Initially, the British government attempted to create two separate Home Rule territories for the north and south, both of which would remain in the United Kingdom.

But Irish nationalists had unilaterally declared an independent Ireland, refusing to recognise the plan and launched the Irish War of Independence

In December 1921, the British reconciled themselves to the nationalists’ demands, creating an Irish Free State in the 26 counties of the south and thus partitioning Northern Ireland from the rest of Ireland for good.


Notable recent events

The northern Ireland conflict

Photo by Fribbler on Wiki (CC BY-SA 3.0)

There are many recent events that have led to the various differences between Ireland and Northern Ireland to be solidified in more recent years.

The Troubles were a roughly 30-year conflict that took place from the 1960s. One of the most notable events that took place during this time was Bloody Sunday.

The Troubles came to an end with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.


To summarise

map showing ireland and northern ireland

To summarise, the key differences between Northern Ireland vs Ireland are that the Republic of Ireland is an independent, sovereign country while Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions that I get on this topic:

  • Is Dublin in Northern Ireland? No. Dublin is the capital of the Republic of Ireland and it is located in what you often hear referred to as ‘Southern Ireland’
  • Is there still a conflict between Northern and Southern Ireland? There is no conflict between Northern vs Southern Ireland, however, parts of the north are still in conflict with each other
  • Is Northern Ireland part of the UK? Yes. Northern Ireland’s six counties are part of the United Kingdom along with England, Scotland and Wales

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Friday 28th of July 2023

An excellent summary, hats off to you. One recommendation though would be to clarify what 'Ireland' means at the very start. This does cause confusion. It is both the name of the island and the name of the country. Therefore Ireland (the island) contains two countries (or jurisdictions as people here prefer to say), one being Ireland (also known as the Republic of Ireland), and the other being Northern Ireland.

Tom Walker

Friday 7th of July 2023

Keith Great summary. We make an annual trip to Ireland/Northern Ireland and we have seen how much Belfast has evolved. We now spend lots of our time in Northern Ireland as we enjoy it so much. The cultural & food scene in Belfast has really stepped up. It's great to see this. Every time I plan my visit to Ireland I use you website for most aspects of the journey.

Thanks a million and great job!

Tom W

Ashish Kumar Paul

Tuesday 21st of February 2023

A very well written with a complete and clear difference between Northern Ireland and Irish Republic has been laid out for those having curiosities about the two territories. Profusely thank the writer for the clear cut submission keeping no need for further questions about the topic.

Lee-Anne Calhoon

Saturday 3rd of September 2022

Very easy to understand. I’m going to Ireland Republic, Northern Ireland and Scotland next week. I don’t want to be “an ignorant American”. Thank you for teaching this in an unbiased way, James.


Wednesday 9th of March 2022

Thank you, Keith, this is excellent! We'll be visiting from USA to Northern Ireland in May, as my husband's kin from County Antrim (some are still there). We've been trying to decide if there is any real "difference" in what we would see geographically and culturally. It's really helpful to understand the different currency, car rental issues and, likely now, vaccination and testing requirements. Perhaps we'll stay with NI and Scotland :)

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