CCRU home background on CCRU community relations equality and equity research

Centre for the Study of Conflict
School of History, Philosophy and Politics,
Faculty of Humanities, University of Ulster

Ethnic Minorities in Northern Ireland

Ethnic Minorities in Northern Ireland frontispiece

by Greg Irwin and Seamus Dunn
Published by the University of Ulster, Coleraine 1997
ISBN 1 85923 068 7
Paperback 140pp £7.00

Copies are available in bookshops or, by post, from:

Pat Shortt
Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster
Northern Ireland
BT52 1SA

T: (01265) 324666 or 324165
F: (01265) 324917

Ethnic Minorities in Northern Ireland

by Greg Irwin and Seamus Dunn

Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster


List of Tables

List of Figures

List of Abbreviations




Legislation and Race Relations in Great Britain and Northern Ireland


Race Relations in Northern Ireland


Research Design and Methodology


Enumeration of Ethnic Minorities


The Characteristics of Ethnic minority groups in Northern Ireland


An In-depth Survey of Ethnic groups, Social Profile and Access to Services




Appendix 1

Appendix 2


The long, drawn out inter-group conflict in Northern Ireland between the two major communities has tended to occlude the existence of a vibrant and growing ethnic pluralism within Northern Ireland. The emergence of these ethnic minorities reflects a wider change all round Europe, and many other parts of the world, and its range, extent and implications are neither well recorded nor well understood.

This report is a first attempt to look closely at the four main ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland - that is the indigenous travelling community, the Chinese, Indian and Pakistani communities. In particular it tries to provide a reasonably accurate picture of the population of each group, since these figures have, until now, been unknown and therefore much subject to guesswork. The next census in 2001 will almost certainly contain a question on ethnicity, and this will serve to verify how accurate are the estimates generated by the research reported here.

The report also looks at various other demographic features, and at the perceptions of members of the minority communities about the extent to which they have equitable access to the services of the society - such as education and health provision. It also seeks to generate a sense of the extent to which members of these communities feel that they are discriminated against or are the subject of violence and bigotry.

We hope that this will be only the first of a series of studies in this area, and that it is the beginning of a process of persuading the community as a whole to be aware of the special advantages that such minorities bring to our society and our range of cultural experiences.

Seamus Dunn
February 1997.

Return to publication contents



This research was commissioned from the Centre for the Study of Conflict by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) who, along with the EC Physical and Social Environment Programme, funded the project.

The last five years have seen a number of developments regarding race relations in Northern Ireland. Government published a consultative paper, Race Relations in Northern Ireland (Central Community Relations Unit (CCRU) 1992), in which the options for the introduction of race laws in the region were explored. In 1995, the Secretary of State announced the Government's intention to introduce race relations legislation for Northern Ireland. Finally, in 1996, a draft Race Relations Order was published for consultation, prefacing the introduction of legislation.

Running parallel to these developments, has been the mobilisation of ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland. In 1994 the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM) was created as an umbrella body for these groups; a year later, the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Equality (NICEE) came into existence. Both groups, although not always enjoying a harmonious coexistence, have helped to raise awareness of race issues, and have proved effective in lobbying for the introduction of race relations legislation for Northern Ireland.

All of these developments are discussed in subsequent chapters.


For over a quarter of a century there has been a conflict between the two major communities in Northern Ireland, designated variously as Protestant and Catholic, or Unionist and Nationalist.

Not surprisingly, the continuing mutual hostility and suspicion between the two sides has ensured that the focus and energy of community relations developments in Northern Ireland has concentrated almost exclusively on the Protestant-Catholic division, and has prioritised resources in that direction. The understanding of community relations, implicit in almost all its manifestations, has related to the two major communities, and increasingly the conflict is being defined as an 'ethnic' encounter. The use of the word ethnic can, however, lead to confusion, as there is some disagreement about whether or not it is sensible to define the two sides as ethnic communities or to describe them as ethnically distinctive. For the purpose of clarity, in this study the two main communities in Northern Ireland will be excluded when the term ethnic is used. The sense in which we will use the term 'ethnic minority' relies in part on a definition by Louis Wirth (1945: 349), who talks of:

... a group of people, who because of physical or cultural characteristics, are signalled out from the others in the society in which they live for differential and unequal treatment, and who therefore regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination.

This definition emphasises subjective effects but adequately provides the strong notion of ethnic groups being set apart from the host community.

It should be stressed that the use of the term 'ethnic minority' in this study is important and deliberate. Firstly, the study talks about 'ethnic minorities' rather than 'racial minorities' in recognition of the redundancy of 'race' as a concept, with its biological and ideological premises (Miles 1989; Barry and Tinscher 1978). Secondly the concept of ethnicity seeks to challenge the assimilationist assumptions connected with 'race', and accepts the permanence of the ethnic groups in question (Mason 1995). Finally, the use of ethnic minority is important because it is a flexible construct which allows self-definition by those so defined. In this way it has positive ramifications for ethnic groups: as Michael Banton (1983: 103) comments: " ... the former (ethnic group) reflects the positive tendencies of identification and inclusion where the latter (race) reflects the negative tendencies of dissociation and exclusion".

The Four Groups Studied

The four ethnic groups reported upon here are, the Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and Traveller communities living in Northern Ireland. Decisions about membership, in the case of the Chinese, Indian and Pakistani communities, were based on the classification in the 1991 Census in Great Britain, as follows:

1. The Chinese ethnic classification is largely a linguistic definition, including those from not only China, but Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

2. By contrast, the Indian and Pakistani classification is based on nationality. The Travelling community is defined as an ethnic group in the draft Race Relations Order for Northern Ireland.

The Research Questions for the purposes of this research

The research set out to examine four central questions:

1. What are the populations of the four ethnic groups under study? In Great Britain a question was incorporated in the 1991 Census of Population, regarding the ethnic status of the respondent. No such question appeared in the Northern Ireland 1991 Census of population, and so there are no clear answers to the question of population size for the four groups.

2. What is the general social or demographic profile of each of the four groups, with regard to census variables such as age, gender, marital status, geographical location, family size, housing, length of residence in Northern Ireland, educational attainment, employment status, religion and country of birth? In order to allow comparison with the general population, the questions used were largely based on those used in the census of population. Where appropriate, other sources such as the Annual Abstract of Statistics and Social Trends were also used for comparisons.

3. What are the views, opinions and experiences of the four groups, with respect to their:

a. access to services such as education, health care, employment opportunities and training, housing, social security, and to the police;

b. experience of racism and racial harassment, with respect to the situations in which such behaviour occurs (in the street, at work, in school, in official premises such as a police station, and so on), and with respect to the perpetrator (a friend, a neighbour, someone who works with the respondent, a customer, and so on);

c. the general experience of living in Northern Ireland.

4. What are the opinions of the four groups of legislation in the area of race relations? This will measure the groups' general awareness of the existing legislation in Great Britain, of the impending introduction of parallel legislation to Northern Ireland, and the perceived or possible effects of the introduction of this new legislation within Northern Ireland.

Return to publication contents


This study was first major research project on Northern Ireland's ethnic minorities. Four groups (Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and Travellers) were studied, and the findings indicate that the relative size of all of them is increasing substantially. This growth brings with it the recognition of the contribution which such groups bring to the economic, social and cultural life of Northern Ireland, to the creation of a pluralist society and to a softening of the region's dichotomous political division.

The Government has recently announced its intention to introduce legislation to protect the rights of ethnic minorities. This decision is an acknowledgement of their growing salience and visibility within the community, and of the importance of ensuring that all citizens are protected both in respect of access to services and provision of resources, and freedom from discrimination and harassment.

It will also be necessary, in association with this new legislation, to ensure the existence of a formal system of consultation and representation for ethnic minorities, to monitor the effectiveness of procedures, to indicate gaps and deficiencies in the legislation and to make suggestions about changes and revisions. The proposal in the draft Race Relations Order for Northern Ireland which provides for the creation of a Commission for Racial Equality for Northern Ireland (CRENI) will hopefully remedy the problem concerning consultation of ethnic minority issues.

The position of the ethnic groups under study

This study sought to increase knowledge of selected ethnic groups with regard to six areas:

  1. Population Estimates.

    Because existing estimates of population had little or no apparent objective basis, this was an attempt to provide creditable estimates, using snowballing as a method of enumerating special groups. The results appear to confirm existing estimates that ethnic minorities make up less than 1 per cent of the total population in Northern Ireland. Figures for the Indian, Pakistani and Traveller communities are also reasonably close to existing estimates, but the figure for the Chinese community is considerably lower than previously suggested. The weight of evidence in this study points to a figure for the usually resident Chinese community in a range between 3000 and 5000.

    Of additional interest is the finding that the rate of growth for the four groups under study significantly exceeds that of the general population, and that this growth, under current conditions, is likely to continue to outstrip that of the general population for the foreseeable future.

  2. Social Profile Attributes.

    Among the findings from the enumeration are that: around half of the ethnic groups were born outside Northern Ireland; the four communities had a younger age profile than the population generally; they lived in larger households: and, finally, the location of the ethnic groups within Northern Ireland was disproportionately concentrated in the east of the region.

    The Chinese community had the greatest proportion of their numbers born outside Northern Ireland, with seven out of ten of the Chinese being born in Hong Kong. By contrast, the Traveller community had by far the largest proportion of its numbers born in Northern Ireland. Each of the four ethnic groups had higher proportions than the general population, of its members in the three youngest age categories. For example, half of all Travellers enumerated were under 16 years of age, and, only 6 per cent of Travellers were over 45 years old, compared to a quarter of the general population. In addition, the data gave a strong indicator of the economic specialisation of the Chinese community, with the large proportions of self-employed and skilled(manual) members pointing to the involvement in the catering business. Greater proportions of those Indians born in Northern Ireland were in the 16-44 years category than any other non-Traveller ethnic group - one indicator of this community's relative longevity in the region. The relatively recent settlement of the Chinese in Northern Ireland was demonstrated by the statistic which showed that nearly half of this community born in the region were in the school age (5-15 years) category.

    All the ethnic groups had larger average household sizes than the general population. Whilst one in five ethnic households contained six or more persons, only 6 per cent of general population households had this number. Moreover, a quarter of general population households contained one person compared to only 9 per cent of the ethnic groups. All of the ethnic group households reflected a strong family structure, with the married-couple with dependent children the most popular family type. In addition, ethnic households were three times more likely to contain two or more families than the general population, reflecting the high incidence of extended families among the (non Traveller) communities. Indeed the ethnic group households were more likely to have children than the general population, especially young children. One in every two Traveller homes contained a child between 0-4 years. By contrast, ethnic groups households were less likely to contain members over 60 years of age compared to the general population. Finally, the high relative incidence of lone parent families among the Traveller community was noteworthy.

    Nearly three quarters of those interviewed lived in the east of Northern Ireland. 38 per cent lived in the Belfast District council area. Relatively significant numbers also lived in the Craigavon, Ballymena, Derry and Lisburn district council areas. The Chinese community had the greatest dispersion of members throughout Northern Ireland, with the Pakistani and Traveller communities not having any members living in a whole host of district councils. A pattern of settlement seemed to be apparent for the Indian community, with concentrations in two areas - greater Belfast and the north-west of Northern Ireland reflecting historical factors (see Kapur forthcoming). Generally, the profile of the non-Traveller ethnic groups reflect a higher level of economic achievement than that of the general population. Similarly all of the Asian groups have higher levels of employment and educational attainment and higher rates of home ownership.

    There are however subtle differences within the Asian groups. The Indian community, arguably one of the most successful sections of society in Northern Ireland gauged by indicators from this data, has the highest proportions, among the other ethnic groups, of economically active members in the top occupational classes. It also has higher numbers with professional qualifications, and a larger proportion own their homes generally. Data on household density also seems to suggest that Indians tend to live in larger homes.

    Although the Pakistani community reflects the success of the Indian community to some degree, the findings showed higher levels of unemployment with greater proportions of over-crowding for this group. In addition, whilst nearly two thirds of economically active Indians were in the top two occupational classes only a third of Pakistanis were. There are significantly greater proportions of Pakistanis in the skilled (non-manual) occupational class, reflecting this community's traditional association with market trading.

    The Chinese community tends to have more members in the skilled (manual) occupational class than the other ethnic groups - reflecting the influence of catering, with a greater proportion renting their homes (furnished or unfurnished). A notable employment feature is the high proportion of this community who are self-employed, with a significant number of females as well as males in this category.

    Undoubtedly the Traveller community comes out, least favourably in a review of the ethnic groups. Of most concern is the finding that four out of five Travellers have not had a paid job in the past ten years. This community also has a low level of educational attainment compared both to other ethnic groups and to the population as a whole. Overcrowding in Traveller homes seems to be a real problem.

  3. Access to Services.

    One way of measuring disadvantage was to assess barriers to service provision. The findings show that while difficulties in accessing services is a substantial problem for the Chinese community in particular, this does not seem to be the case to the same extent for the other ethnic groups.

    By far the greatest problem in accessing services arises out of language and communication difficulties. For example, 67 per cent of Chinese interviewees felt there were difficulties in accessing the social services, and the prevalent view was a call for more Chinese speaking social workers and bi-lingual doctors. A significant minority of Pakistanis also expressed a similar view.

    Among the other important access problems were: the negligible level of take-up of Government training programs by Travellers; a significant dissatisfaction with the police amongst Chinese respondents; and, a relatively low rate of crime reporting to the police by the Traveller community. These last appear to support other anecdotal evidence that Travellers (at least) have an uneasy relationship with the police.

  4. Living in Northern Ireland.

    The vast majority of respondents thought that things had changed in Northern Ireland since the paramilitary ceasefires of August 1994. Half of those questioned felt that these cease-fires, and the consequent changes, will make things worse for their community. The greatest degree of pessimism existed amongst the Chinese community, 63 per cent of whom felt they would make things worse for their community. There was particular reference to the probability of an increase in racism and a rise in crime committed against them.

  5. Experience of Harassment and Prejudice.

    Harassment and prejudice are sensitive and emotive concepts, and attempts by survey research to measure such concepts can be fraught with difficulty. The views recorded are of course the perceptions of those surveyed, there are difficulties of interpretation and of causal ascription, and there is the danger, associated with what has been called 'conceptual inflation' (Miles 1989), that the idea of 'race' is stretched to account for all kinds of actions and behaviour. In addition, in Northern Ireland, there has been considerable recent publicity about racial violence and harassment. Nonetheless, this study has attempted to measure harassment and prejudice, whilst being cognisant of the difficulties and sensitivities involved.

    Where harassment was experienced, the evidence was that a greater proportion of the Chinese community seemed to be the recipients. The most common form was verbal abuse, and this was experienced by 44 per cent of all respondents. Of some concern was the finding which revealed that over half of Chinese interviewed had experienced criminal damage towards their property.

    A headline measure of prejudice which asked respondents whether or not they believed there was racial prejudice in Northern Ireland found that 61 per cent believed this to be the case. Perceptions based on time tended to reflect a more pessimistic view that prejudice would increase rather than decrease over time.

  6. Views on Legislation.

    It is interesting to note that 67 per cent of those questioned did not know about the proposed race relations legislation before being interviewed. This lack of knowledge is perhaps a reflection of poor forms of communication from both Government agencies and ethnic representative groups, and may indicate the need for new strategies in this area of communication. Nine out of ten, however, supported the introduction of such a law, although there was a relatively significant proportion of the Indian community opposed to the idea. Although three quarters of those questioned felt that the legislation can improve the position of their community, there was less emphatic agreement (58 per cent) with the statement that such legislation would help to stop racial discrimination.

Policy and ethnic groups

The purpose of the study was to provide information about a range of questions, and to inform the policy-making process, in relation to the current and future needs of Northern Ireland's ethnic minorities. The work is obviously a first attempt and further research will be necessary in the future.

Of immediate relevance was the introduction of a draft Race Relations Order for Northern Ireland whilst this report was in preparation. Much of the draft Order mirrors the Race Relations Act (1976) in Great Britain, with the Government deciding on the creation the CRENI as an enforcement body. The decision to formally recognise the Traveller community is welcome, as is the decision to make provision relating to legally binding undertakings which have yet to be introduced in Great Britain.

There are some areas of the draft legislation which may provoke debate. The composition of the commission made up of five commissioners, with an estimated annual running cost of 450,000, will lead to much discussion. It is arguable whether or not having five commissioners will be sufficient to cover the broad range interests of the ethnic groups in Northern Ireland. There is also scope for criticism regarding Article 67 which almost directly mirrors provision for local authority responsibilities in place in Great Britain without recognising the limited powers available to district councils in Northern Ireland.

Nevertheless the legislation, when it becomes law, will give the necessary impetus towards recognising the rights and needs of ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland. These rights and needs have been highlighted by the findings from this report. There are many challenges which need to be addressed, and these include:

  1. Community relations policy in Northern Ireland should not focus only on the Protestant and Catholic communities.

  2. A question relating to ethnic origin, prepared in consultation with the ethnic minorities, should be included in the 2001 census for Northern Ireland.

  3. The findings from the survey indicated a lack of knowledge about the proposed legislation by a majority of respondents. It is essential that a greater awareness of the legislation is disseminated amongst the ethnic minorities so that as many as possible can contribute to the consultation process.

  4. This study found that the greatest problem experienced by the ethnic groups in accessing services, particularly the Chinese community, was language difficulties and the need for interpreter provision. Although the overall numbers of ethnic groups living in Northern Ireland are relatively small, there is clearly a need to address this issue, especially for the Chinese, since many arrive in Northern Ireland without a good understanding of the English language. The data shows that the dependency needs of all the ethnic groups are high -given the high proportions of young children - and this reinforces the need for increased interpreter provision to enable those without a strong grasp of the English language to fairly access services.

  5. It was clear from the findings that the Chinese and Traveller communities experienced some difficulties in accessing training and employment opportunities. Consultation with the Chinese community is needed in order to establish whether a role for employment bodies exists in expanding employment choices for this ethnic group. An evaluation of Traveller take-up of training opportunities is also needed in order to identify barriers to accessing provision. It may be that a more culturally appropriate approach may be needed in order to encourage Traveller participation in training programs.

  6. Of the four ethnic groups in this study the data on the Traveller community created most concern. Travellers experience high levels of overcrowding in homes, low levels of employment, a low level of attainment in education, and the disturbing statistic concerning low proportions of this community aged over 45 require. These factors taken together point to a community whose existence is unduly affected by disadvantage The need for a multi-agency approach towards the Travelling community is vital; such an approach has been pioneered at a local level through the Ballyowen health centre in west Belfast, and the benefits of this experiment are tangible. Removing disadvantage for the Travelling community may be best achieved through a co-ordinated effort influenced by the new CRE for Northern Ireland.

  7. There are findings for the RUC to consider in this report. Sizeable proportions of the Chinese community especially, and the Traveller community to a lesser extent, reported dissatisfaction with the way the police do their job. Half of Chinese respondents were either dissatisfied or did not know when questioned on their assessment of policing. Many Chinese respondents mentioned the lack of security for their premises and the perception that the police failed to prevent crimes against them, whilst a sizeable number of Travellers felt that the RUC were showing them more attention (in a negative sense) in recent times. There is no doubt that, with the recent spate of burglaries in Chinese restaurants, the RUC have given this community more attention. This development is to be encouraged, and more liaison and consultation are recommended.

  8. Finally there are matters which the ethnic representative groups themselves need to consider. More needs to be done to make the general population aware of the existence of ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland, their history in the region, and their cultural outlook. Such an approach can help to overcome existing ignorance and suspicion in relation to ethnic groups that is one of the causes of racial harassment or discrimination. It is also important that ethnic representative groups are able and willing to work closely together to promote their views and needs, and this will assume even greater importance with the arrival of legislation and the creation of CRENI.

A research agenda for ethnic groups

References have been made in this publication concerning to the need for further research. The draft legislation makes provision for a research function for CRENI, and this report would like to advocate a research agenda which would have three main objectives:

  1. to increase knowledge generally about ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland;

  2. to probe, measure and record the opinions of minority groups on matters affecting them; and,

  3. to identify specific problems and causes of disadvantage and difficulty for ethnic minority groups and to consider how these might be dealt with.

A number of projects which could contribute to the fulfilment of these objectives are outlined below.

  1. A qualitative study, with particular relevance to immigrants in Northern Ireland, exploring attitudes to and perceptions of living in the region.

  2. There is a particular need to examine further the finding of this report, which showed that only 6 per cent of Travellers were over 45 years of age. The most obvious research methodology for investigating this and other problems pertaining to the Travelling community should be a longitudinal study.

  3. It would be instructive to assess the economic specialisation of the Chinese community in the catering business, and what implications -if any - this has for younger members of this community currently in full-time education.

  4. A study seeking to identify the particular needs of ethnic minority women.

  5. A number of action research projects to seek for solutions to some of the access problems described in this report. One example would be the employment of a Chinese-speaking social worker in an outreach scheme. Another would be some form of inter-cultural programmes in schools.

Return to publication contents

© CCRU 1998-1999
site developed by: Martin Melaugh
page last modified:
Back to the top of this page