According to the 2001 census, 167,487 people (10.4% of the population) had "some knowledge of Irish" with the highest concentrations of Irish speakers found in Belfast, Derry City, Newry/South Armagh, Central Tyrone (between Dungannon and Omagh), and southern Londonderry (near Maghera).
The last native speaker of Antrim Irish died in 1983. A wealth of recordings and stories told by the man were recorded by researchers from Queen's University in Belfast.
Irish received official recognition in Northern Ireland for the first time in 1998 under the Good Friday Agreement. A cross-border body known as Foras na Gaeilge was established to promote the language in both Northern Ireland and the Republic, taking over the functions of Bord na Gaeilge.
The British government has ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in respect to Irish in Northern Ireland.
The last speakers of varieties of Irish native to what is now Northern Ireland died in the 20th century. Irish as spoken in Counties Down and Fermanagh were the first to die out, but native speakers of varieties spoken in the Glens of Antrim and the Sperrin Mountains of County Tyrone and County Londonderry survived into the 1950s and 1970s respectively. Whilst the Armagh dialect survived until the 1930s/40s. Varieties of Irish indigenous to the territory of Northern Ireland finally became extinct as spoken languages when the last native speaker of Rathlin Irish died in 1985. Most Irish speakers in Northern Ireland today speak the Donegal dialect of Ulster Irish.
Since 1921, the Irish language has been regarded with suspicion by Unionists in Northern Ireland, who have associated it with the Republic of Ireland and more recently, with the republican movement in Northern Ireland itself.". Many republicans in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, learned Irish while in prison. The language was proscribed in state schools within a decade of partition, and public signs in Irish were effectively banned under laws by the Parliament of Northern Ireland, which stated that only English could be used, although many teachers in Catholic schools ignored this and hid it from administrators. These were not formally lifted by the British government until the early 1990s.
The Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 states: "It shall be the duty of the Department (of Education) to encourage and facilitate the development of Irish-medium education."
It has been claimed that Belfast now represents the fastest growing centre of Irish language usage in Ireland - and the Good Friday Agreement's provisions on "parity of esteem" have been used to give the language an official status there.
The ULTACH Trust (Iontaobhas ULTACH) was established in 1989 by Irish language enthusiasts to attract funding from the British Government for language projects and to broaden the appeal of the language on a cross-community basis (among both Protestants and Catholics)
Knowledge of Irish by persons over the age of 3 (2001 Census):
Six families in Belfast established a Gaeltacht area in Belfast in the late 1960s and opened Bunscoil Phobal Feirste in 1970 as the first Irish-medium school in Northern Ireland, and in 1984 was granted the status of a voluntary maintained primary school. The first Naíscoil (Irish-medium nursery school) opened in 1978.
Comhairle na Gaelscolaiochta was established by the Minister of Education in 2000 to develop Irish-medium education. Irish language pre-schools and primary schools are now thriving and there are Irish language secondary schools known as Méanscoileanna in Belfast, Armagh, and Derry.
In the academic year 2004-5, 3,713 children were enrolled in Irish-medium education:
BBC Radio Ulster began broadcasting a nightly half-hour programme, called Blas ('taste'), in Irish in the early 1980s, and there is now an Irish language programme on the station every day. BBC Northern Ireland broadcast its first television programme in Irish in the early 1990s, SRL ('etc.'). Many areas of Northern Ireland can now tune into TG4, the Irish-language television channel, which is broadcast primarily from the Conamara Gaeltacht in the Republic. In March 2005, TG4 began broadcasting from the Divis transmitter near Belfast, as a result of agreement between the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Northern Ireland Office, although so far this is the only transmitter to carry it.
RTÉ's Irish-language radio station, RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta which broadcasts in the Republic, is also available in most areas via signal overspill. Ofcom have awarded a broadcasting license to Raidió Fáilte, a community radio station based in West Belfast. The new service covers the Greater Belfast area and started broadcasting from October 2006.
Raidió Failte 107.1fm a community Irish language station broadcasts 24 hours per day seven days per week in Belfast. They broadcast a selection of programmes; music, chat, news, current affairs, sports, arts, literature, environmental and community issues. They are now also available worldwide on the internet at RadióFáilte.com.
The Northern Ireland Film and Television Commission administers an Irish Language Broadcast Fund (announced by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in April 2004) to foster and develop an independent Irish language television production sector in Northern Ireland. The European Commission authorised public funding for the fund in June 2005 considering that "since the aid aims to promote cultural products and the Irish Language, it can be authorised under EU Treaty rules that allow state aids for the promotion of culture".