The role of Northern Ireland in British politics is the most extreme sign of a problem that goes to the heart of the nature of the UK: what should be the boundaries of that Kingdom and how can its boundaries be maintained? In 1800 an Act of Union abolished the Irish Parliament in Dublin and united the whole island of Ireland under the British Crown. In 1922 an Irish Free State came into existence with the same degree of independence enjoyed by other members of the Commonwealth like Canada and Australia. This followed a treaty that brought to an end five years of military conflict between the British state and Irish republican nationalists. But the new Irish state only covered 26 counties with an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic population. The remaining six, in the north of the island, dominated by a Protestant population that supported continued union with the Crown, were granted a high level of devolved government within the UK. That devolution lasted 50 years. The degree of devolution was unusual in an otherwise highly centralized political system, and was the result of a great clash about the identity of the UK. The independence settlement involved partitioning the island and incorporating the six northern counties as a component part of the UK, but one with its own legislature, executive and extensive control over its own domestic affairs.
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