Troubled Geographies:
A Spatial History of Religion and Society in Ireland

Ian N. Gregory, Niall A. Cunningham, C.D. Lloyd, Ian G. Shuttleworth and Paul S. Ell
Full text available from Indiana University Press
Figures by
Maps by
1. Background
2. The Plantations
3. Pre-Famine Ireland
4. The Famine
5. Towards Partition
6. Partition & Civil War
7. Continuous division
8. Towards the Celtic Tiger
10. Conflict & death
11. Belfast and the Troubles
12. Stability or change?

9. Stagnation and segregation: Northern Ireland, 1971-2001


The period between the censuses of 1971 and 2001 saw rapid change in Northern Ireland as traditional industries declined while at the same time sectarian conflict, in the form of the Troubles, killed over 3,000 people. This chapter covers demographic, economic and social change in Northern Ireland stressing that in many ways the province was typical of declining, heavy industrial regions. Chapter 10 then looks at patterns of violence during the Troubles, and chapter 11 brings these thread together focussing on Belfast. Northern Ireland's 'modern' censuses, those from 1971-2001, allow these developments and their geographies at every local levels using the Northern Ireland Grid-Square Product1 that provides counts for 1 sq. km and 100 sq. m cells. These were provided for all censuses from 1971-2001 and can be used to map detailed trends over time. Unfortunately the 1981 census was taken against a backdrop of the civil unrest that took place during the Hunger Strikes and is thus seen as unreliable when compared to other censuses.

A unique society?

Population density, legend
Population density 1971
a. Population density in Northern Ireland, 1971
Population density 1991
b. Population density in Northern Ireland, 1991
Population density 2001
c. Population density in Northern Ireland, 2001

 Fig 9.1: Population density in Northern Ireland, (a) 1971, (b) 1991 and (c) 2001. Note that Social Explorer maps are only available at district level.

Figure 9.1 shows the distribution of the population of the province as it changed over the three decades. It clearly shows how important Belfast and its suburbs are as a centre of population. The remainder of the province consists of Londonderry/Derry in the north-west and a variety of smaller towns. The western part of Northern Ireland is more sparsely populated than the east although even in the east, areas such as the Glens of Antrim in County Antrim and the Mourne Mountains in County Down have large unpopulated areas.

Population change, legend
Population change in Northern Ireland 1971-01
Population change in Northern Ireland, 1971-2001

Fig 9.2: Population change in Northern Ireland, 1971-2001.

The distribution of the population changed significantly over time. Overall the population of the province increased from 1.54 million in 1971 to 1.69 million in 2001,2 an increase of around 10 percent. There is, however, a clear pattern to this with losses taking place in Belfast, Londonderry/Derry, and in some smaller towns such as Coleraine and Ballymena, but there are areas of population gain in close proximity just outside these settlements. This counterurbanisation illustrates how the social geographies of Northern Ireland are often similar to those found elsewhere.

Average household size, legend
Household size, 1971
a. Average household size in 1971
Employment rate 2001
b. Average household size in 2001

Fig 9.5: Average household size in Northern Ireland, 1971-2001.

Similarities between Northern Ireland and other places in Europe go further than this. There has been a decline in the birth-rate leading to an aging society, and, as figure 9.5 shows, a decline in the average household size due to the rise in one-person households caused by a combination of a rising divorce rate, higher numbers of widows and widowers, and more young people choosing to live alone.

Economic and social change

Reasons for this are complex and not always well recorded by the census however the general path is a clear transition from the 'old economy' to the 'new economy.' There has been a decline in agricultural and manufacturing employment and a growth in the service sector, particularly in the form of call centres and financial services, and in the public sector.

Employment rate, legend
Employment rate, 1971
a. Employment rates among the economically active population in 1971
Employment rate 2001
b. Employment rates among the economically active population in 2001

Fig 9.6: Employment rates among the economically active population in (a) 1971 and (b) 2001.

Figure 9.6 compares the patterns of the employed as a percentage of the economically active population in 1971 and 2001. Two features stand out: first the generally lower employment rates in Belfast and Londonderry/Derry in 2001 when compared to 1971, the second is a greater unevenness in the geography of employment in 2001.

Owner occupation rate, legend
Owner occupation rate, 1971
a. Owner occupied housing in 1971
Owner occupation rate 2001
b. Owner occupied housing in 2001

Fig 9.7: Owner occupied housing in (a) 1971 and (b) 2001.

Figure 9.7 also shows that owner occupation grew throughout the province, probably as a result of 'right-to-buy' policies, while renting decreased.

Households lacking a car, legend
Households lacking a car, 1971
a. Households lacking a car in 1971
Households lacking a car, 2001
b. Households lacking a car in 2001

Fig 9.8: Households lacking a car in (a) 1971 and (b) 2001.

Likewise, figure 9.8 shows that there has been a large decline in households lacking a car as car ownership has become far more widespread. All of these indicators suggest that over the three decades the population of the province has become more affluent and equally that the trends that it has followed have been similar to those elsewhere in western Europe. Therefore Northern Ireland was not, and is not, unique in its social economic and demographic trends.

Religion: A more segregated society?

There is a perception of a growing Catholic population and the census seems to bare this out. In 1971 the province's population was 34 percent Catholic while in 2001 this had risen to 45 percent. This may, however, be somewhat misleading as the religion question is voluntary and will have varying levels of non-response. Nevertheless, it is possible to have confidence in these trends if not the exact proportions.

Catholics, legend
Catholics, 1971
a. The distribution of Catholics in 1971
Catholics, 1991
b. The distribution of Catholics in 1991
Catholics, 2001
c. The distribution of Catholics in 2001

 Fig 9.9: The distribution of Catholics in (a) 1971, (b) 1991 and (c) 2001. Note that Social Explorer maps are only available at district level.

Figure 9.9 shows the distribution of Catholics as it changed from 1971 to 2001. It shows that there is a clear pattern of concentration in parts of Belfast, south Down and south Armagh, and areas west of the Bann, especially in and around Londonderry/Derry. There were also large parts of the province with very low Catholic populations, especially in north Down and Antrim.

Protestants, legend
Protestants, 1971
a. The distribution of Protestants in 1971
Protestants, 1991
b. The distribution of Protestants in 1991
Catholics, 2001
c. The distribution of Protestants in 2001

 Fig 9.10: The distribution of Protestants in (a) 1971, (b) 1991 and (c) 2001.

Figure 9.10 shows the same pattern for Protestants where the pattern of very much concentrated in north Armagh, north Down and the populated parts of Antrim.

Change in Catholic population, legend
Change in Catholic population, 1971-2001
a. The changing distribution of (a) Catholics, 1971-2001
Change in Protestant population, 1971-2001
b. The changing distribution of Protestants, 1971-2001

Fig 9.11: The changing distribution of (a) Catholics and (b) Protestants, 1971-2001.

Figure 9.11 shows how these geographies changed over the period from 1971-2001. The areas with large losses of Catholics are clustered in central Belfast and the east bank of the Foyle in Londonderry/Derry. The largest gains have been in south and west Belfast and in Londonderry/Derry west of the Foyle. The Protestant pattern shows some interesting contrasts to this. Fewer grid squares showed Protestant population growth and these have a very different pattern to Catholics. Around Belfast there has been far more decline in central areas and growth, where it exists, tends to be in the east and outside the city. In Londonderry/Derry the pattern is the opposite to those of Catholics with loss west of the Foyle and growth to its east.

There is thus evidence of increasing segregation in Northern Ireland over this period although the evidence suggests that most of this occurred in the period between 1971 and 1991.3 Reasons for the increase in segregation include forced moves, particularly at the start of the Troubles, housing policy, employment change, and counterurbanisation, as well as the continued growth of the Catholic population.


Northern Ireland changed in complex ways in the period from 1971 to 2001. In these years the image of Northern Ireland was dominated by communal conflict and violence. However, as the maps indicate, Northern Ireland experienced some of the changes experienced by other societies. One important conclusion, then, is that Northern Ireland was not a place apart, and that other things happened beyond the violence that made the headlines Despite this, the conflict and the understandable emphasis on communal division mean that Northern Ireland cannot be treated just like anywhere else. There is clear evidence for Catholic demographic advance and for increased residential segregation , but claims that segregation grew inexorably between 1971 and 2001 exaggerate the reality.

1. I. Shuttleworth & C. Lloyd, 'Are Northern Ireland’s communities dividing? Evidence from geographically consistent population data 1971-2001' Environment and Planning A, 41 (2009), pp. 213-229.

2. Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, Population Statistics,

3. Shuttleworth & Lloyd, Environment and Planning A.




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©Ian Gregory & Niall Cunningham, 2013