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Northern Ireland is the smallest of the Home Nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland lies in the north-east of the island of Ireland. It covers 14,139 square kilometres (5,459 square miles), and has a population of 1,685,000 (April 2001). The capital is Belfast.
Northern Ireland was created in 1921 as a home-rule political entity, under the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, along with the nominal state of Southern Ireland, which was superseded almost immediately after its creation by the Irish Free State. When the latter achieved independence, Northern Ireland - under the procedures laid out in the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1921 - declined to join, and so remained part of the United Kingdom. The majority of the population is unionist and wishes to remain part of the United Kingdom, but a significant minority, known as the nationalists, want a united Ireland. The clashes between both sets of identity, and allegations of discrimination against nationalists by unionists, produced a violent struggle by minorities within both communities that ran from the late 1960s to the early 1990s and was known as The Troubles. As a consequence, self-government for Northern Ireland was suspended in 1972. Since the mid-1990s, the main paramilitary groups have observed an uneasy ceasefire. Following negotiations, the Belfast Agreement of 1998 provides for an elected Northern Ireland Assembly and a 'power-sharing' Northern Ireland Executive comprising representaives of all the main parties.
There is no longer any official Flag of Northern Ireland, as the 'Red Hand Flag' was abolished along with the Parliament of Northern Ireland in 1972. Unionists tend to use the Union flag and sometimes the Red Hand Flag, while Nationalists typically use the Flag of Ireland. Both sides also occasionally use the flags belonging to their political parties and other secular and religious organizations they belong to. (http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/images/symbols/flags.htm) Some groups, including the Irish Rugby Football Union have used the Flag of St. Patrick as a symbol of Ireland which lacks the same nationalist or unionist connotations, but even this is felt by some to be a loyalist flag, and no universally acceptable symbol has yet been found. Similarly, there is no longer a national anthem; A Londonderry Air was the national anthem.
With its improved international reputation, Northern Ireland has recently witnessed rising numbers of tourists who come to appreciate the area's unique heritage. Attractions include cultural festivals, musical and artistic traditions, countryside and geographical sites of interest, pubs, welcoming hospitality and sports (especially golf and fishing).
Northern Ireland was covered by the ice sheet for most of the last ice age and on numerous previous occasions, the legacy of which can be seen in the extensive coverage of drumlins in Counties Fermanagh, Armagh, Antrim and particularly Down. The centrepiece of Northern Ireland's geography is Lough Neagh, at 392 km? the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles. A second extensive lake system is centred on Lower and Upper Lake Erne in Fermanagh.
There are substantial uplands in the Sperrin Mountains (an extension of the Caledonian fold mountains) with extensive gold deposits, granite Mourne Mountains and basalt Antrim Plateau, as well as smaller ranges in South Armagh and along the Fermanagh/Tyrone border. None of the hills is especially high, with Slieve Donard in the dramatic Mournes reaching 848 metres, Northern Ireland's highest point. The volcanic activity which created the Antrim Plateau also formed the eerily geometric pillars of the Giant's Causeway.
The Lower and Upper River Bann, River Foyle and River Blackwater form extensive fertile lowlands, with excellent arable land also found in North and East Down, although much of the hill country is marginal and suitable largely for animal husbandry.
The valley of the River Lagan is dominated by Belfast, whose metropolitan area includes over a third of the population of Northern Ireland, with heavy urbanisation and industrialisation along the Lagan Valley and both shores of Belfast Lough.
The whole of Northern Ireland has a temperate maritime climate, rather wetter in the west than the east although cloud cover is persistent across the region. The weather is unpredictable at all times of the year, and although the seasons are distinct they are considerably less pronounced than in interior Europe or the eastern seaboard on North America. Average daytime maximums in Belfast are 6.5?C in January and 17.5?C in July. The damp climate and extensive deforestation in the 16th and 17th Centuries results in much of the region being covered in rich green grassland.
The area now known as Northern Ireland has had a diverse history. From serving as the bedrock of Irish nationalism in the era of the plantations of Queen Elizabeth and James I in other parts of Ireland, it became itself the subject of major planting of Scottish settlers after the Flight of the Earls in 1605 (when the native governing and military nationalist elite left en masse). Today, Northern Ireland comprises a diverse patchwork of community rivalries, represented in some areas by whole communities where lamp posts and some homes fly the Irish national flag, the tricolour, or the Union Flag, the symbol of British identity, while even the kerbstones in less affluent areas get painted green-white-orange or red-white-blue, depending on whether a local community expresses nationalist/republican or unionist/loyalist sympathies.
The vast majority of the population of Northern Ireland identifies with one of two different groups, unionists and nationalists. Both communities are often described by their predominant religious attachments, particularly by media outside Northern Ireland. Unionists are predominantly Protestant (the major Protestant faith is Presbyterianism, the second in terms of size is the Church of Ireland), while nationalists are predominantly Roman Catholic. However, contrary to widespread belief, not all Roman Catholics necessarily support nationalism, and not all Protestants necessarily support unionism. It is also important to note that, in parallel with other parts of Europe, the proportion of the population practising their religious beliefs has fallen dramatically in recent decades, particularly among Catholics and adherents of mainstream Protestant denominations. This has not necessarily resulted in a weakening of communal feeling.
Once established under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, Northern Ireland was structured geographically so as to have a unionist majority, unionist fears as to what would happen to them forming the basis for their opposition to a united Ireland, which led to creation of the two Irish states. However, the Roman Catholic populationhas increased in percentage terms within Northern Ireland, while the Presbyterian and Church of Ireland population percentages have decreased.
Most Northern Irish Catholics support reunification, although opinion polls have shown a sizable minority who support remaining part of the UK, usually while continuing to support nationalist political parties. This proportion has slowly but steadily declined over the past fifteen years to around 20% in most polls. The proportion of Protestants who wish to join the Republic is smaller, at 3-5%, but stable. There are also considerable numbers of people, especially Catholics, who give ambiguous answers to questions about the future constitutional status of Northern