In 1967, the Dungannon District Council allocated a new house to a single Protestant woman who had links to a local Unionist politician. Also waiting for housing was a local Catholic family who consequently was denied one. This was a catalyst that led to protests and rioting in later years in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry. The protests highlighted inequality, and an outcome was that the allocation of public housing was taken away from local councils. Legislation in 1971 created the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE).

According to a 2018 report from the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence, the legacy of violence in Northern Ireland still manifests itself in the “widespread ethno-religious residential segregation”, despite the progress made in Northern Ireland. 

Dissimilarity and dominance

Residential segregation can be examined in terms of “dissimilarity” and “dominance”. Dissimilarity is the distribution of one community across a neighbourhood and is contrasted with their respective town. Meanwhile, dominance is a measure of which community has the majority in a given area.

For example, in an in-depth study in 1996 by the Centre for Conflict Studies at the University of Ulster, authors Michael Poole and Paul Doherty looked at towns with over 1,000 households. Using the dominance measure, 17 out of 39 towns that fit the criterion are deemed highly segregated (and represent 78% of the population in Northern Ireland). 

Likewise, in 2017, the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA) indicated that 90% of social housing estates are still single-identity. 

This is despite strong public support for shared housing. In 2018, 76% of respondents to the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey said that they would prefer to live in a mixed-religion neighbourhood. 

The private housing sector behaves according to the principles of the market, where purchaser and seller come to exchange. Where that meeting point itself is the product of a segregated society that created it, then it can very well reproduce existing patterns of division.

Government does influence markets, through taxation, regulation and direct interventions. It can affect house building through planning relaxation, targeted loans and regional grants. It should be noted that NIHE no longer builds social housing; this is the responsibility of private builders.

Steering and self-segregation

An interesting comparison can be made by examining how the housing market in the USA affects residential segregation by race. A recent study showed that relatively few blacks and even fewer whites were moving into multi-ethnic communities. The study analysed house moves between 1977 and 2005, and found 61% of blacks moved from black-to-black neighbourhoods, with 19% moving to multi-ethnic neighbourhoods. 75% of whites did the same, and only 2.4% moved to multi-ethnic neighbourhoods. Factors that affect levels of integration are the existing segregation of the communities and poverty levels.

Official policies can seek to promote equality and fairness in housing. However, these do not prevent overt racist acts or practices that reinforce housing segregation, for example “steering”. This is where estate agents and mortgage lenders will direct buyers to the correspondingly ethnically segregated area. The argument is that this helps preserve property values and that there is a presumption of self-segregation by buyers. A response to such practices is given as more monitoring and improved statistical gathering and analysis, with a view to applying strategically targeted fiscal incentives to encourage integration.

Racial residential segregation can be explained by three factors:

  1. black self-segregation;
  2. white racism (action taken to prevent blacks moving into a neighbourhood); and
  3. individual moves away from integrating neighbourhoods.

Of the three, the most significant was found to be the last one. Important to these kinds of relocations is the concept of the “tipping point”. When whites perceive the balance is going too far, they sell up and move to another white residential area.

There are some established policies for addressing division, including the use of “affirmative action” through financial and fiscal strategy; the need to address any socio-economic inequalities that may lie behind segregation through educational attainment differences; and industrial development policies that govern location of employment. Most basic of all, of course, is the enforcement of existing equality legislation. 

Public policies

NIHE has created and continues to review many initiatives and policies, which includes:

  • Community Cohesion Unit;
  • Bonfire management;
  • Segregation and integration;
  • Good practice guidance to flags, emblems and sectional symbols.

Projects to improve bonfire management have been funded by the Improved Bonfire Management Scheme in three areas of Northern Ireland: Antrim, Newtownabbey, and Ballycastle. A regional bonfire policy is still being developed, to encourage communities to improve the management of seasonal bonfires. The issue of “designating” bonfire sites is still being discussed at the Good Relations Steering Panel  of Belfast City Council.

In regards to social housing segregation and integration, NIHE declares its support of the wishes of those who choose to live in single identity or mixed neighbourhoods. This includes the facilitation and encouragement of mixed housing schemes “as far as this is practical, desirable and safe”.

The removal, maintenance and management of flags, emblems and sectional symbols in public housing areas is directed by a plan drawn up by a local community association, which nominates a Community Liaison Representative. That person is responsible for maintaining a register and record of those items erected and removed. NIHE points to the successful implementation of such plans in Portadown and Strabane. Also, the Shared Communities Consortium assists the removal of sectarian symbols through art, funded by a £3.3 million programme for three years. The NIHE has also produced a Good Practice Guide in respect of flags and other symbols, with the aim of creating “an environment where people feel safe to celebrate and respect culture within and between communities”. NIHE also has a twin track approach to developing shared areas:

  1. Shared Future Housing Programme; and
  2. Shared Neighbourhood Programme.

Under the Shared Future Housing Programme, a mixed community social housing scheme was launched in County Fermanagh in 2006. Twenty families on Carran Crescent, outside Enniskillen, signed up to a charter for their community, and no more than 70% of any one religion is allowed.

The Shared Neighbourhood Programme works with existing communities, providing grants to enable community organisations to celebrate diversity and bring together people, from all backgrounds, who live in these areas. NIHE provides training and practical on-the-ground support via a dedicated team of advisers. Several housing areas across Northern Ireland have committed to participating in this programme, including Springfarm in Antrim, Lissize in Rathfriland, Knockmore/Tonagh in Lisburn, Gortview/Killybrack Close in Omagh, and Ballynafeigh in Belfast. NIHE outlines this strategy in its Community Cohesion Strategy 2015–2020. In this strategy, the NIHE outlines its approach as: 

  • updating the Mapping Segregation Report;
  • facilitating and encouraging mixed housing schemes;
  • working with the Executive Office, under the Together: Building a United Community (T:BUC) policy, to bring proposals forward for 10 “Shared Future” capital build projects of mixed housing schemes in the medium term;
  • developing support programmes of action to address the issues of residential segregation and integration in 72 communities across 3 years, through the BRIC 2 programme; and
  • developing legacy programmes targeting young champions in neighbourhoods.

In 2010, the report “Independent Commission on the Future for Housing in Northern Ireland” addressed housing across all tenures and sectors. It was commissioned by NIHE, The Joseph Rowntree Trust, and other housing bodies. Among its 150 recommendations is a section on housing’s role in achieving social cohesion. This includes both religious and cultural integration, by seeing the reduction of these divisions as a positive aspiration. Recommendations related to social cohesion include:

  • a statement of progress to be devised on integration across wealth and cultural divides;
  • undertaking of shared housing projects on “neutral sites” and brownfield sites;
  • the use of mixed tenure schemes to break down divides between communities;
  • use of EU Peace III, INTERREG etc funding to promote integrated housing developments;
  • the creation of Community Land Trusts and Housing co-operatives for integrated housing schemes; and
  • that the Common Selection Scheme used for the allocation of social housing be used to positively encourage social cohesion rather than inhibit it.

In 2012, Northern Ireland’s first ever housing strategy was published. It set out an ambitious vision for housing in Northern Ireland and was subject to extensive public consultation. Among its aims were to ensure that “everyone has the opportunity to access good quality housing at a reasonable cost”. It also outlined five main roles for government in the provision of housing, including the promotion of “equality of opportunity in housing and promoting good relations”. 

The strategy was accompanied by a Housing Strategy Action Plan, published in September 2015, which details progress on each of the proposals in the strategy. By 2015–16, the action to “develop a shared community programme” was marked as having been achieved. The NIHE application form was amended to identify shared housing interest, as well as the pilot of a BCC waiting list. NIHE also continued to work with the Department of Justice to reduce interface structures where possible and agreed the BCC Common Landlord Area (CLA). 

In November 2015, shared housing was included in the Fresh Start Agreement, as all parties committed themselves to “relationship building measures within and between communities”. The UK government also committed to the provision of capital funding for integrated education and shared housing projects. 

The Draft Programme for Government Framework 2016–2021 included the delivery of shared housing as an action, with the new Department for Communities (DfC) committing to establishing 200 shared social housing units. The new Social Housing Development Programme was labelled “Housing for All”. Through collaboration and Good Relations Plans, DfC, NIHE, and the individual Housing Association work together to implement the schemes. 

The collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2017 posed major challenges in advancing many of the goals of shared housing, not least because this stalled the release of funding under the Fresh Start Agreement, as explained by the Deputy Secretary of the DfC in April 2018. Challenges around shared housing once again made headlines in September 2017, when Catholic residents were subject to sectarian threats and consequently moved out of a shared housing development. 

Nevertheless, when the Northern Ireland Executive resumed in 2020, commitments were made once again to shared housing in the “New Decade, New Approach” deal, insofar as the UK government agreed to “financial flexibility to reprofile funding provided as part of the Fresh Start Agreement for shared and integrated education and housing”.  

In all, housing remains a deeply problematic political issue in Northern Ireland, despite the strong public support for integration. It may be that in the ongoing political debates, the issue of shared housing rarely receives the attention it merits, given its broad public support. 

Suggested reading:

“Ethnic Residential Segregation in Northern Ireland”, Michael Poole and Paul Doherty, 1996.

“End residential racial segregation: Build communities that look like America”, F.W. Roisman, 2007.

“Racial residential segregation in American cities”, L.P. Boustan, 2011.

Research provided by Stevie DOWNES and Jason BUNTING.

Last updated: 31 August 2020 

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