In A Nutshell
The United Kingdom, Great Britain, the British Isles, England: They’re all the same place, right? Wrong. In some places, suggesting they are might get you into a lot of trouble. All terms refer to different combinations of countries, areas, and islands; the UK is England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, while Great Britain is almost the same—without Northern Ireland. The Channel Islands are some of the islands off the coast . . . but not all. And the Isle of Man? Completely different.
The Whole Bushel
There’s really no easy way to explain or to remember what name covers which areas, especially since the volatile natures of all involved means that the degree of independence from each other always seems to be changing. So, we’ll start with the easy one—Ireland. The Republic of Ireland (and by “The Republic of Ireland,” we mean the southern part of the island, that includes Dublin, Cork, and Galway) is never a part of any term. The Republic of Ireland is its own country, with its own passports. The whole island is just called “Ireland,” while the Protestant northern counties are called Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom. The UK consists of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and it’s the collective UK that sits as a member state of NATO, the EU, and the UN.
To make it a little easier, just remember that the UK’s full name is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As that suggests, Great Britain refers only to England, Wales, and Scotland.
Then there are the Crown Dependencies.
The Isle of Man sits in the middle of the Irish Sea, about the same distance from England and Scotland as it is from Ireland. It’s not a part of the UK or Great Britain, but it is a crown dependency. The royal monarchy appoints a representative to oversee local affairs, and there, The Queen is known as the Lord of Man. The British government is responsible for acting on behalf of the island in foreign affairs, and it’s their responsibility to defend the island.
Similarly, the Channel Islands are also crown dependencies, and not actually a part of the UK. Because they were once under the control of the Duke of Normandy (and the English Crown became his successor in 1106), the islands transferred to their control. The two largest islands—Guernsey and Jersey—also have officials appointed by the Queen to oversee their own individual legal, financial, and administrative governments. Also like the Isle of Man, the English Crown has the final say in matters of government, and also extends their protection to the islands. Here, the Queen is referred to by the title that allows the English Crown ultimate control over the territories—she’s called the Duke of Normandy.
(Interestingly, the Channel Islands were occupied by the German army during World War II, but because they are technically not a part of the United Kingdom, the UK still considers itself unoccupied during the war.)
Just how much control each individual country has over its own affairs and within the United Kingdom’s government has long been up for debate, and there is certainly no end in sight.
So what’s the Commonwealth Realm? England has always been rather notoriously aggressive in its expansion efforts, and there are still 15 countries that recognize the English Crown and the monarchy. Those are Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Grenada, Belize, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Papua New Guinea.
Show Me The Proof
National Geographic: Ireland Facts
BBC: United Kingdom profile
Centre for Citizenship: The British Islands
The Official Website of the British Monarchy: Queen and Crown dependencies