Belfast is the capital and largest city in Northern Ireland which is a devolved nation of the United Kingdom. Historically, Belfast’s location and purpose served well as a port, due to its location being on the East Coast of Ireland.  Up until the end of the Second World War, it was considered a major global industrial port. The city is traditionally divided into four main areas which form the basis of constituencies for general elections.  These areas are subdivided, reflecting the religious geography and the divided nature of Northern Ireland as a whole. Walls known as ‘peace lines‘, divide the inner city into fourteen inner city neighbourhoods. The peace lines were originally erected by the British Army following a period of unrest and the 1969 Northern Ireland riots.

Main challenges, trends and policies


The education system in Northern Ireland is characterised by religious and social segregation.  From 1827 onwards, schools were denominational and controlled by churches. In 1922/3, the Northern Irish Education Act was established, with support from the Lynn committee, which was established to progress education. This created the segregated education school system in Belfast. The views of the Catholic Church were not represented despite multiple invitations, meaning the education system was designed around Protestants’ needs.  Over the following two decades, Protestant churches transferred control of their schools to the state, whilst Catholic churches continued to maintain control of their schools. Consequently, protestant schools became ‘controlled schools’ and Catholic schools became ‘maintained schools’.

The 1989 Education Act introduced a new category of school: the integrated school to address school segregation.  Integrated schools bring children and staff together from both Catholic and Protestant traditions, as well as from other faiths, or none.  At present Northern Ireland has 65 integrated schools.


Belfast was traditionally an industrial based economy, and a major port.  Its key sectors of linen and shipbuilding saw a gradual decline and economic transition was prolonged and difficult, due to the outbreak of civil unrest.  Public sector roles became an important part of the economy, in line with other parts of the UK.

However, the 2008 economic crash, led to Northern Ireland being the ‘hardest hit’ region in the UK (Institute of Fiscal Studies, 2015).  Typical household income fell by 8%, compared to 2% in other parts of the UK. The Northern Ireland Economic Strategy (2012) was established to boost and rebalance the economy, by addressing inequalities in employment access, with programmes focused on developing skills and qualifications.   Locally, there is a mismatch between the qualifications and skills that people have and the skills that are in demand in the labour force.


Northern Ireland in general, and the city of Belfast in particular, is subject to a shortage of affordable housing, due to economic inequality and rising house prices.  House prices have continued to rise faster than earnings.  Thus, many residents are finding themselves in temporary accommodation. An added complexity in Belfast for administering social and affordable housing is the religious segregation of neighbourhoods created after The Troubles. Although Belfast is now post-conflict, it is still mostly segregated.  This poses a huge problem for addressing housing inequality because social and affordable housing must be offered equally to both Protestants and Catholics and housing development also must be delivered equally. Given the economic and social context in Belfast, young people are more likely to be reliant on social housing and with long waiting lists, young people are likely to be in precarious housing conditions.


Belfast has differences in life outcomes between people living only a few hundred yards apart within some parts of the city.  It has some of the highest quality health services in the UK and yet among the worst outcomes.  Mirroring the national trend, suicide rates in the 10 per cent most deprived areas are almost five times higher (Belfast Agenda, 2017).

The Belfast Agenda aims for all to experience the best possible physical and emotional health.  The agenda includes a plan to invest £25 million in health improvement initiatives (in addition to investment in health and social care services in general).  This will build upon a more person-centered approach to healthcare where social support services will act as a gap between hospital services and primary care services.

Discussion and main conclusions

  • Belfast is a city of two tales with some of the most deprived areas in Northern Ireland while at the same time benefitting from foreign direct investment and many highly skilled jobs. The legacies of The Troubles have also impacted on the development of the city. However, Belfast is developing and evolving its identity as a post-conflict city.
  • In Education, there are attainment gaps for boys, Protestants and young people living in the most deprived areas due to the segregated nature of the system.
  • 1 in 4 children and young people live in deprived areas meaning they are more likely to be unemployed because their areas do not have employment opportunities and high transport costs make them “prisoners of geography” leading to further exclusion.
  • There appears to be a mismatch between skills that employers want and the education and skills training young people receive.  The inequalities identified are structured along religious and socio-economic lines. Northern Ireland has placed addressing inequalities at the heart of its policies with varying degrees of success.  The reflexive Belfast Agenda created by consultation and partnership of key city partners, residents, the private sector and the community organisations outlines priorities and goals with a four-year focus.  This provides a framework to work collaboratively to develop policies and interventions to address inequalities.
  • Northern Ireland’s economy was impacted by the 2007 financial crisis although Belfast’s reliance on public sector employment served as a cushion in the immediate aftermath of the crisis. Whilst the impact of austerity was less severe in Northern Ireland as spending on education and health were protected at the UK level, austerity affected national and local policies. Unique to Northern Ireland as a nation in the UK is the legacies of the ‘The Troubles’ which has had a lasting impact on inequalities particularly in education and housing.

Official deliverables

D2.2 Urban report - Belfast

Belfast Urban Story Our storymaps draw together insights on inequalities and policies affecting urban youth, across education, employment and housing, from the WP2 urban reports and data analyses.