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While an Anglo-Norman
castle was built at the site of Belfast in the 12th Century, it was not until
the plantation of Ireland by English and Scots settlers in the 17th Century,
that Belfast began to grow. At that time Belfast was a Protestant
city as the planters excluded the native Catholic population. It was not until
the early 1800s, as the city industrialised, that large numbers of Catholics
became attracted to Belfast for work. By the 1850s, Catholics made up one third
of the population of the city. The proportion of Catholics and Protestants changed
from time to time since then: at present in the core city (i.e.
excluding the suburbs which have been swallowed up with urbanisation) Catholics
make up almost half of the population.
These populations are, as we have seen, very segregated. The levels of segregation seem to vary over time. In the mid 19th Century about 50% of the population was estimated to live in segregated streets about 50% lived in mixed streets. During times of inter-ethnic tension segregation levels rise. This may be due to intimidation of people out of their homes or voluntary relocation into areas perceived as safer. During periods of reduced inter-communal tensions it might be thought that many people would return to their original homes. However this does not appear to happen. Professor Tony Hepburn has called this the segregation ratchet. In the 1960s, for example, 67% of Belfasts core city residents lived in segregated streets. By the 1970s this had risen to 77% and to 78% by the 1980s. It will be interesting to see whether an outcome of the peace process will lead to more mixed residential areas. Ongoing conflict at ethnic interfaces in Belfast would suggest that this is unlikely, as the ratchet slips up another notch.
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