Ireland has two different systems of registration plates, or numberplates, and they are not compatible at all. Northern Ireland as a jurisdiction has clung onto an old-fashioned system, outdated elsewhere in the United Kingdom. And while reading an Irish numberplate might be relatively easy, even intuitive, the same cannot be said about the wheeled brethren in the North. The reason being that Northern Ireland has a different system.
Not only from the Republic, because for good measure it is also substantially different from the system used in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland - a Numberplate Backwater
Regarding vehicle registrations, Northern Ireland certainly must be the most conservative part of the British Isles ... as the state even today still uses the old "national system". This was created for the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland as early as 1903. And has been phased out everywhere else in both the UK and Ireland.
This system is based upon county and city codes of two letters, with the I or Z allocated to Ireland (which, at that time, was still one political entity). Each of these codes was originally followed by a number, ranging from 1 to 9999. When these ran out, a new code was allocated, and by 1957 the system ran out of codes and numbers, so the sequence was reversed from January 1958.
The rapid growth of road traffic exhausted this system even quicker, and in January 1966 the first new style numberplates were introduced, still in use today.
Current Northern Irish numberplates are based on a system of a letter, followed by the county or city code, followed by up to four numbers.
The Optical Layout of a Northern Irish Numberplate
Numberplates adhering to the Northern Irish law come in two colors - those at the front of a vehicle have black characters on a white background, those on the back of the vehicle use a yellow background.
On the left side of the numberplate you may see the blue EU-stripe with a GB country code ... or you may not, as the incorporation of this stripe is entirely optional. Stout republicans wouldn't be seen dead with that stripe - but omission of the stripe is no declaration of allegiance.
You may occasionally see cars having a blue stripe without the EU symbol, instead sporting a Union Jack, or even the old flag of Northern Ireland, often complete with an NI code - those are illegal. Also illegal are variants with the country code IRL.
City and County Codes on Northern Irish Numberplates
Here's another throwback to old times ... the counties of Northern Ireland (Antrim, Armagh, Derry (or Londonderry, if you prefer), Down, Fermanagh, and Tyrone) were effectively replaced by "council areas" some decades ago. But they are still the basis of the coding on the registration. And here they are, alphabetically:
Special Registrations in Northern Ireland
The numbers from 1 to 999 are generally considered "cherished registrations" and only issued on special request (and for a special fee). So are the numbers 1111, 2222, 3333, 4444, 5555, 6666, 7777, 8888, and 9999. Any other number between 1000 and 9998 is simply allocated on a first come, first served basis.
As to county and city codes, there are only two special sequences reserved:
- LTZ - used for buses built in Northern Ireland, but intended for Transport for London, and
- QNI - used for all vehicles of "indeterminate age", as well as for kit cars.
Vehicles used by the security forces are registered with normal plates, vehicles used by the British Army are registered within the UK system on Army plates.