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Introduction to Ethnic Diversity in Belfast

In many ways Belfast is a typical city of the early 21st Century. It suffers from many of the same problems that any medium sized post-industrial city has to cope with. The geography of the people who live in the city is, in most regards, very similar to other cities in the developed world. The inner city is characterised by the elderly and by single young people. Families tend to live on the periphery. Socio-economic areas radiate out from the Central Business District, as they do in many other cities, with a pronounced wedge of affluence extending out the Malone Road to the south for example. A sector of lower socio-economic status extends to the west of the city.Gable wall painting from the 'Catholic City'.

However in one regard Belfast is different from most comparable cities – it has a very high degree of segregation along ethnic lines. Many parts of the city are either ‘Protestant’ or ‘Catholic’ - these areas are invariably marked by flags, graffiti and other marks of territory. The people who live in Belfast know the ethnic geography of their city intimately – they have had to learn it. Not knowing it can be dangerous, and even fatal. Other cities in Britain have segregation along ethnic lines. There are ‘Asian’ areas in Bradford and ‘West Indian' areasin London. The Chinese community often congregate in certain parts of settlements. Indeed a study of the geography of migrants to cities has long been a part of the subject.

Sometimes ethnic divisions have led to unrest. The causes for this are complex. In a Home Office report into the riots in some cities of Northern England in the summer of 2001, they concluded that while social deprivation and lack of community leadership had a part to play, divided communities and segregated social space were important contributory factors. The British Government are now under pressure to reduce their encouragement of 'Faith' schools and it is believed by some that these can contribute to the segregation that exists in housing and, effectively, divides the population along ethnic lines.

Despite the apparently high levels of residential segregation in some English cities, Northern Ireland cities are somewhat different in the degree of community polarisation. Additionally the size of the minority group – the Catholics – is very large. Paul Doherty (in Social Contrasts in a divided city (1990) Geographical Perspectives on the Belfast Region, Geographical Society of Ireland) examined levels of segregation in Belfast, using 1 kilometer grid squares as a basis for his analysis. He found that, of the 157 square kilometers of the city, in 1981 only 10 were more than 90% Catholic. These were in the west of the city in a narrow sector running from close to the Central Business District to the suburbs. This area he called the 'Catholic City'. The 'Protestant City', where Protestants made up 90% or more of the population, constituted 72 squares. Much of this in the east of the city but there are also areas, such as Rathcoole in north Belfast for example. Doherty also calculated levels of segregation in Belfast using an measure termed the Index of Dissimilarity. With a value of between 0 (for no segregation) to 100 (for totally segregated populations), it measures the proportion of the population which would have to move to achieve a situation of total segregation. Belfast in 1981 had a index of 60.4, up from 49.6 in 1971. Doherty compares this to indices of dissimilarity which have been calculated by Jones and McEvoy (1978 - Race and space in cloud-cuckoo land Area 10(3) 162-166) for Asians in Huddersfield of 66.6, but this was a much smaller minority group than that of Catholics in Belfast.

How these figures have changed since 1981 I do not know, but it is likely that the segregation ratchet has gone up a notch or two and the indices of dissimilarity are likely to be even higher. Doherty's work is based on Small Area Statistics from census information and is necessarily on a relatively 'coarse' 1 kilometer scale. At individual street level, in much of Belfast, there is total segregation. Thus on the Springfield Road (shown on the photograph here) it is likely that the population is wholly Catholic. Similarly it is very likely that no Catholics live in Tiger's Bay, a Protestant enclave in West Belfast.

Maps of the city's ethnic geography based on electoral wards can also be misleading about the amount of ethnic mixing. Often electoral wards can appear mixed but may be divided at street level. The map from the Cain site below shows, for example, Ballymacarrett as a mixed ward. It is a mixed ward but comprises the Short Strand (exclusively Catholic) and the Lower Newtownards Road (exclusively Protestant) and so, for individuals living in the ward, is entirely segregated. Within the ward is Cluan Place, a famously contested ethnic space in the city of Belfast. Neutral as a Tram Terminus between the two communities, when it was converted to a residential area, conflict occurred and is still apparent in the area. Most of the yellow areas on that map (Cliftonville, Chichester Park, Ballynafeigh, Rosetta, Dunmurray, Waterworks and Finaghy), while apparently mixed, are in fact increasingly segregated along ethnic lines.


Map of Ethnic geography of Belfast

Mapping Local Segregation in Northern Ireland