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There is no generally accepted term to describe what Northern Ireland is: province, region, country or something else.[4][5][6] The choice of term can be controversial and can reveal the writer's political preferences.[5] This has been noted as a problem by several writers on Northern Ireland, with no generally recommended solution.[4][5][6]

Owing in part to the way in which the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland came into being, there is no legally defined term to describe what Northern Ireland 'is'. There is also no uniform or guiding way to refer to Northern Ireland amongst the agencies of the UK government. For example, the websites of the Office of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom[74] and the UK Statistics Authority describe the United Kingdom as being made up of four countries, one of these being Northern Ireland.[75] Other pages on the same websites refer to Northern Ireland specifically as a "province" as do publications of the UK Statistics Authority.[76][77] The website of the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency also refers to Northern Ireland as being a province[78] as does the website of the Office of Public Sector Information[79] and other agencies within Northern Ireland.[80] Publications of HM Treasury[81] and the Department of Finance and Personnel of the Northern Ireland Executive,[82] on the other hand, describe Northern Ireland as being a "region of the UK". The UK's submission to the 2007 United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names defines the UK as being made up of two countries (England and Scotland), one principality (Wales) and one province (Northern Ireland).[83]

Unlike England, Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland has no history of being an independent country or of being a nation in its own right.[84] Some writers describe the United Kingdom as being made up of three countries and one province[85] or point out the difficulties with calling Northern Ireland a country.[86] Authors writing specifically about Northern Ireland dismiss the idea that Northern Ireland is a "country" in general terms,[4][6][87][88] and draw contrasts in this respect with England, Scotland and Wales.[89] Even for the period covering the first 50 years of Northern Ireland's existence, the term country is considered inappropriate by some political scientists on the basis that many decisions were still made in London.[84] The absence of a distinct nation of Northern Ireland, separate within the island of Ireland, is also pointed out as being a problem with using the term[6][90][91] and is in contrast to England, Scotland, and Wales.[92]

Many commentators prefer to use the term "province", although that is also not without problems. It can arouse irritation, particularly among nationalists, for whom the title province is properly reserved for the traditional province of Ulster, of which Northern Ireland comprises six out of nine counties.[5][86] The BBC style guide is to refer to Northern Ireland as a province, and use of the term is common in literature and newspaper reports on Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Some authors have described the meaning of this term as being equivocal: referring to Northern Ireland as being a province both of the United Kingdom and of the traditional country of Ireland.[90]

"Region" is used by several UK government agencies and the European Union. Some authors choose this word but note that it is "unsatisfactory".[5][6] Northern Ireland can also be simply described as "part of the UK", including by UK government offices.[74]

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