Segregation and Mixing

The end of the Troubles presented a golden opportunity for the unwinding of divisions and the promotion of greater societal cohesion between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. The post-conflict period, characterised by a radical improvement in safety conditions, strong equality legislation, a recovering economy, and generous amounts of peacebuilding aid produced demonstrable improvements in the nature of daily living in Northern Ireland. Greater security has allowed for the development of neutral shared spaces, for example in commercial centres such as Belfast’s Titanic Quarter and Castle Court (see Phil Ramsey, “‘A Pleasingly Blank Canvas’: Urban Regeneration in Northern Ireland and the Case of Titanic Quarter.” Space and Polity, vol. 17, no. 2, 2013, pp. 164–179). Systemic discrimination in the workplace is acknowledged as being eliminated, improving relations and facilitating greater understanding and an appreciation of Northern Ireland’s cultural diversity.

However, the peace dividend has not been evenly distributed and many communities, especially working class neighbourhoods, say that they have been left behind. In the decades since the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (the Agreement), virtually no progress has been made on addressing the high levels of segregation in public housing, and although there are more neutral spaces than there were in the past, many of these are commercial spaces serving as “new sites for tourists, investors and moneyed residents”, argues Brendan Murtagh, who adds that greater spatial mixing in Northern Ireland has primarily been a product of “social mobility … gentrification and levels of enterprise”, thereby benefiting those with means while further marginalising vulnerable populations.

Furthermore, although Northern Ireland has become more accepting of mixing between Catholics and Protestants, there is still someway to go. Many Catholics and Protestants are unwilling to let go of aspects of their identity that eschew greater mixing. This is reflected in the recent Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) (2017) finding that many still prefer to send their children to schools with children predominantly of the same religion and a 2015 finding by David Mitchell et al that the majority of respondents see “nothing wrong with different sports teams” for Protestants and Catholics. Perhaps more importantly, many still regard contact with the other community as dangerous. A 2015 survey found that out of 1,000 respondents living along the peace walls in Belfast, Derry and Craigavon, 78% thought that taking the walls down would result in sectarian violence.

In sum, the Northern Ireland peace process has undoubtedly produced greater mixing in some areas, while also leading to an intensification of segregation in others. This paper analyses the extent of this in various arenas as well as explore barriers to more mixing and projects for desegregation.


One of the biggest successes of the peace process is the desegregation of almost all economic sectors across Northern Ireland. The 1989 Fair Employment Act required that all employers “record the religious background of all job applicants and appointees”. Monitoring and enforcement has been very effective at reducing employment differentials between Catholics and Protestants. Whereas in 1992, 70% of working age Protestants were employed, compared to 54% of Catholic, in 2016, the figures were 67% and 66% respectively.

The recent Equality Commission’s Fair Employment Monitoring Report Number 27 (2016) also showed that the narrowing gap between Catholics and Protestants has continued in both the public and private sector. Protestants made up 51.8% of the private sector while Catholics make up 48.2% and a rough 50/50 split was also found in the public sector. The notable outlier is the security sector, in which Catholics make up about 30% of the workforce. But even in this sector, a trend towards greater equality continues.

The success of workplace integration is further reflected in the recent NILT survey (2017), which reported that 89% of respondents prefer working in a mixed religion workplace.


Although equality mechanisms were also put forward for housing in 1971, through the creation of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, this was not enough to counteract the trend of segregation that began prior to the Troubles and was greatly accelerated during the conflict. By the end of the conflict, large swaths of Northern Ireland’s residential landscape was deeply divided: 17 out of 39 towns, holding the majority of the population, were considered highly segregated, as was 90% of public housing.

Meanwhile, there has been a decrease in “single identity wards” (“above a threshold of 80% of one religion”) from 55% to 37%. This decrease can largely be attributed to greater social mobility amongst Catholics in the post-conflict period. The 2011 census indicated that whereas 61 wards were at least 90% Catholic, only two wards were at least 90% Protestant. This indicates that the social mobility of Catholics has led to a growth in “new communities” in middle-class areas that were traditionally Protestant.

However, the organic mixing that occurred in middle class neighbourhoods has not occurred in working class neighbourhoods. To stimulate mixing, a number of government initiatives have been rolled out. Between 2008 and 2014, a series of programmes produced 50 shared neighbourhoods across Northern Ireland and developed “good relations” programmes for 88 segregated public housing estates. Building off of this success, in 2015, the five-year “Community Cohesion Strategy” was announced, aimed at developing mixed housing “where it is practicable, desirable and safe”. Among its many targets were to bring proposals forward for at least ten mixed housing schemes, develop programmes to address residential segregation across 72 communities, and to support interface regeneration and normalisation.

Despite sustained efforts by the government to stimulate mixing in social housing, the extent of segregation as of 2017 stubbornly remains at 90% and unfortunately, efforts seem to be only slowing down. One of the challenges is that finding places in which mixed housing is “practicable, desirable and safe” has become harder now that it seems like all the “lowing hanging fruit has been picked”. Sectarian “murals, flags, kerbstone painting and paramilitary memorials” remain common and in many neighbourhoods, paramilitary groups continue to intimidate those they deem undesirable. In 2017, for example, a Catholic family was forced to leave their home in a mixed housing development, Cantrell Close, off the Ravenhill Road in southeast Belfast due to sectarian intimidation. This is why whereas the previous mixed housing initiatives set targets at 30 and then 20 new developments, the latest initiative has set its target at the creation of ten new mixed neighbourhoods proposals within the next five years.


Northern Ireland’s education system continues to be heavily divided by sectarian lines. Although the Education Reform Act of 1989 requires the Northern Ireland Department of Education (DE) to “encourage and facilitate” integrated education, the results have been limited. In the 2015-2016 school cycle, only 7% of pupils were registered as attending the 63 integrated schools. The pace of further integration has only slowed. Whereas in the 2000s, 20 integrated schools were established, four new schools have been opened since 2015.

A challenge is that there’s an inherent limit to the number of integrated schools that can be added, seeing as the overall education system is already heavily fragmented, “not only by denomination but also by the grammar/non-grammar divide”. One option is transformation, whereby a single-identity school chooses to transform into an integrated school. The exercise of this option, however, “has largely been confined to [Protestant-populated] controlled schools threatened with closure, as pupil numbers have depleted”.

To address the slow growth of integrated education and the ineffectiveness of the Education Report Act of 1989, the Shared Education (Northern Ireland) Act was passed in 2016. The law conferred upon the Department of Education, the duty to “encourage, facilitate and promote” shared education. However, given its loose definition, advocates predict that the Department of Education will retain its policy of being “permissive rather than proactive … merely responding to the expressed parental demand for new integrated schools”.

Perhaps more promising has been the amount of cross-community school partnerships that have developed over the last number of years, largely as a response to an increased pressure to rationalise the high surplus capacity that Northern Ireland schools carry. Schools have begun to share resource expenditure “through the sharing of teachers and resources while still maintaining their independent character”. This programme is known as “shared education”.

Some advocates of integrated education argue that shared education does not go far enough. In 2013, the UNESCO Centre at Ulster University investigated similar cross-community education sharing on the international scene. They especially looked at Bosnia-Herzegovina’s (BiH) 50 schools operating under a “two schools, one roof” practice of segregating Muslim and Croat students, and the 2014 BiH federation supreme court ruling that stated, “children should live with one another, not one next to the other. The only natural way of education is schooling in the same class.” The UU report noted that the Bosnian example “should counsel ‘caution about pragmatic approaches to sharing school premises if there is no deeper commitment to structural and social change within society,”

Shared space

Northern Ireland has seen a substantial increase in mixing in commercial zones and public facilities. Public facilities such as libraries, parks and leisure centres have become sites for potential mixing, as such sites have increasingly become regarded as shared space. In the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, 83% of respondents thought that leisure centres were “shared and open” to both Protestants and Catholics. 85% thought the same about parks, and 88% regarded libraries as shared space. Slightly lower, though, was the amount of respondents who thought that “towns and city centres in Northern Ireland are a safe and welcoming place” for all, indicating that communal facilities perceived to be located in one neighbourhood over another are less likely to be regarded as shared space, perhaps due to high levels of residential segregation.

In regards to shopping centres, a recent Northern Ireland Life and Times survey indicates that such places have generally become reliable sites for mixing, with 88% of respondents reporting that they perceive shopping centres as “shared and open”.

This understanding of public space in Northern Ireland as generally neutral is supported by a recent study conducted by a team of academic researchers on the navigation of space by north Belfast residents. North Belfast can be an area with a history of economic deprivation, is made up of equal parts Catholic and Protestant, and contains a high number of segregated neighbourhoods in close proximity to each other, north Belfast is a good indicator of the nature and extent of mixing and segregation in Northern Ireland. Using GPS technology, researchers tracked the movements of a group of north Belfast residents and then analysed the data. The researchers found that Protestants and Catholics spend time in shared spaces frequently and in roughly equal numbers, with Catholics spending slightly more time in shared destinations than Protestants. Out of a total of 4,791 destinations frequented, 49.6% were in-group destinations and 46.7% were shared destinations. Shared pathways and destinations were identified as “large arterial roads” leading to “shopping centers, retail parts and industrial zones”.

Although commercial zones are important spaces of neutrality in which mixing occurs, such interactions are probably “superficial and fleeting” and a “far cry from the kind of intimate meaningful exchanges” that are necessary for overcoming more entrenched social divisions. Researchers also found extremely low rates of “out-group destinations” being frequented at only 3.7%. Residents predominately travelled on the “residential street network” associated with their neighbourhoods and attended “public facilities and activity spaces” that were within their neighbourhood, even if a similar space in a nearby neighbourhood was closer.

Ultimately, researchers found that despite living in close proximity with each other and having access to many neutral public spaces in which mixing can occur, the residents of north Belfast were still heavily segregated. Although researchers did find that the legacy of the conflict played a role, with a “fear of realistic threats” having an impact on people’s navigation of space, a large part of this dynamic of division in north Belfast can be attributed to the banal reality of everyday living:

“. . . a well-beaten, often trod, social trail from home to work, back to home, to lodge meetings, on Sunday to church and back, and then perhaps to visit relatives and friends. Once the pathways had developed, persons tended to stay on them; only once in a long while did they go into parts of the forest frequented by other tribes. For most persons, such paths were the normal walks of life that exposed them to only a few limited social environments”. (R. M. Williams, Strangers Next Door)


Northern Ireland has made some important strides in addressing segregation and promoting mixing. For example, equality legislation has had a strong positive impact on workplace segregation, and greater security and a stronger economy has stimulated residential mixing in middle-class neighbourhoods as well as the creation of neutral commercial space in which safe mixing can occur. Although high levels of segregation persist in education and public housing, there is more cross-community contact amongst children than there was in the past, and community relations programmes continue to be active in the most divided neighbourhoods.

Generally, attitudes towards mixing has shifted in a positive direction. In the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, 78% of respondents reported that they prefer to live in a mixed-religion neighbourhoods and 89% said that they prefer to work in a mixed-religion workplace. Public spaces were largely regarded as “shared and open”.

Despite this notable progress, it’s important to recognise that Northern Ireland is still highly divided. Public housing and education remain over 90% single-identity populated. While there is more shared space in which mixing could occur, it is unlikely that such space is producing meaningful contact. It also seems that the efficacy of large scale initiatives meant to promote mixing is diminishing. The latest mixing initiatives in both housing and education have set less ambitious targets than the programmes of the past, indicating that they are reaching the limits of their ability to address segregation.

It seems that although “economic, legislation and other macro level factors continue to play a role”, segregation is to a larger extent now “driven … by individual and collective choices about where to live, work and education children”. This begs the question of how much public policy can further resolve segregation in Northern Ireland, while the “facts on the ground” of flags, murals and painted kerbstones portrays a different picture.

Research by Allison LIRA.

Image: Photo by Allan LEONARD @MrUlster used by license CC BY-NC

Last updated: 20 May 2019

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