As I understand the Irish border problem in Brexit, it is arising because Northern Ireland is deeply divided: one part considers themselves Irish, the other considers themselves British, and neither are willing to give ground. If this answer is to be believed, it doesn't look like anything is going to change soon, which means that no matter what happens in Brexit, the underlying problems are going to remain waiting for the next crisis.

I'm wondering if there've been any concerted attempts to solve this problem by forcing the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland to integrate. This has already been done elsewhere in the world - the example I'm most familiar with is Singapore. This country also experienced similar problems when it was young: it suffered from race-based violence. In view of this the government later set up race-specific policies, such as this one in publicly-managed housing that openly discriminates between races:

The EIP [Ethnic Integration Policy] is put in place to preserve Singapore’s multi-cultural identity and promote racial integration and harmony. It ensures that there is a balanced mix of the various ethnic communities in HDB towns. The EIP limits are set at block/ neighbourhood levels based on the ethnic make-up of Singapore.

For the purchase of an HDB flat, a household with members of different ethnic groups can choose to classify their household ethnicity under the ethnic group of any owner or spouse (co-owner or occupier), according to the race shown on the NRIC of the chosen member.

Once an ethnicity is chosen for the household, it will remain the same when the flat owners subsequently sell their flat on the open market.

A couple of years ago there was also a presidential election which was reserved for a particular racial group.

While it could be argued that these policies are racist, they also achieved their purpose - there doesn't appear to have been race riots for a long time, and Singapore's crime rate is one of the world's lowest, implying there isn't much inter-racial crime either.

Have there been attempts to do something similar in Northern Ireland? Basically, force the two factions to do things like live together, attend the same schools, and view themselves as Northern Irish as opposed to Catholic & Protestant?

It seems this has already been done in the rest of the UK: Scotland for example is made up of lots of clans which had gone to war with each other in the past, yet today they all (?) identify themselves as Scottish and there isn't the same factionalism as in Northern Ireland.

  • 1
    One problem is that the difference between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants is religious, not racial.
    – jamesqf
    Jul 11, 2019 at 5:41
  • 4
    Scotland actually has the Protestant/Catholic issue to an extent
    – user19831
    Jul 11, 2019 at 7:17
  • @jamesqf It's not really religious as such, as the distinction is still there even after people secularise. There's tribal and cultural aspects to it.
    – gerrit
    Jul 11, 2019 at 12:04
  • @jamesqf That's something of a misconception. There have been instances where people from one side converted to the other, but they were still deeply distrusted and never fully integrated into the other community, even if they moved to live amongst them. The conflict is ethno-nationalist, and while religion acted as a catalyst centuries ago, this is just one aspect of a tribal dispute over identity and power. There have been influential Irish protestants amongst the ranks of republicans, and many Irish catholics amongst the ranks of British security forces.
    – user8398
    Jul 11, 2019 at 13:15
  • 1
    The premise of your question is faulty, most 'Protestants' and 'Catholics' in Northern Ireland live together, work together and integrate with each other just fine, regardless of different views on religion, nationality, etc. It's a vocal minority who don't.
    – JMK
    Jul 11, 2019 at 13:27

3 Answers 3


Yes, and they failed.

Consider the Rathcoole housing estate, created in the 1950s. This was one of many efforts by government to attempt to integrate the two communities as they cleared slums.

Rathcoole was originally a mixed community, but as sectarian violence exploded and rule of law broke down population transfers occurred. In 1972 dozens of Catholic families fled Rathcoole to the Twinbrook estate, and vice versa. Since then Rathcoole has been governed by loyalist paramilitaries, while Twinbrook became governed by republican paramilitaries.

In an effort to increase security 'Peace Walls' were created between sectarian interfaces across Belfast. What was effectively ethnic cleansing during The Troubles (1969-1998) coincided with a total breakdown of rule of law in many parts, which meant the British government could not enforce housing policy.

There were many areas where security services needed army escorts to venture, and consequently there was neither the political will nor military ability to govern these spaces, and they were left to their own devices.

However, not all of Northern Ireland is like this. It's a local peculiarity that the reality is a patchwork of defacto authority. Often a five minute walk will bring you from one area effectively governed by paramilitary terrorists, to another in which the police are welcome.

Most places are peacefully mixed, as are many public and private institutions. It is illegal to discriminate in matters of employment, and also generally is forbidden to display symbols associated with one side or the other. British and Irish flags, for example, are banned from the workplace.

In some communities flags can be seen flying from lampposts. These flags will usually be clustered around sectarian communities segregated demographically from the other side. These places are designated as 'traditional' areas where flags are expected, and thus the authorities grudgingly accept their presence.

Regardless, the police can and will take down flags that are reported in non-traditional areas they do not expect to be governed by paramilitary forces. The use of flags is a form of territorial marking, and is thus a sign of how segregated one place is.

For further information on the subject of Northern Ireland's flag politics (which goes hand in hand with sectarian demographics), please consult 'Public Displays of Flags and Emblems in Northern Ireland (2006-2009), Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University Belfast'.


There are plenty of choice initiatives, such as NICIE. Integrated schooling is particularly important.

Coercive initiatives are unlikely to happen for two reasons. One is that NI is a pluralist democracy, although not a particularly well-functioning one at the moment. There are multiple competing parties, and as part of the peace agreement each "side" has a veto. Singapore is a democracy in name only - in practice it's a one-party state.

The second reason is that overt discrimination of this kind, even (especially!) with "good" motives, would likely be unlawful under the Human Rights Act.

It seems this has already been done in the rest of the UK: Scotland for example is made up of lots of clans which had gone to war with each other in the past, yet today they all (?) identify themselves as Scottish and there isn't the same factionalism as in Northern Ireland.

The clan system was distinctly pre-modern and stamped out in the late 1700s after the Pretenders, while Northern Ireland's civil war occupied about 30 years of the 20th century. Most of the participants are still alive!

Really the comparison should be that England largely succeeded in making Scotland British, through eradication of minority languages, Highland Clearances etc., along with the 19th and 20th century industrialisation-and-empire process that is largely responsible for how Glasgow and Dundee look. England did not succeed in making Ireland British, apart from the small colony of Protestant-descended people in the North. All they succeeded in doing was cutting a very imperfect border across the country, which did not manage to put all the Catholics on one side or Protestants on the other.

That's the core of this; the identity "Northern Irish" is secondary to most people behind either a "British" or "Irish" one, so there would be a long hill to climb to make it a primary one, and it would involve distancing the place from the parent British government. For a while people believed that subsuming everything into "European" identity would work, part of the wider postwar project of preventing conflict in Europe. The DUP and British government have rejected that too.

  • Even the attempt to make Scotland British is incomplete, considering 45% of voters voted they'd prefer to leave the UK (vs 35% of Scottish voters who voted to leave the EU).
    – gerrit
    Jul 11, 2019 at 12:02
  • @gerrit - 45% and 35% of the vote in each referendum. Divide by turnout to express as a percentage of voters. (/pedant mode) Jul 11, 2019 at 12:10
  • 1
    @ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere Pedant mode, if people don't turn out to vote they're not voters.
    – gerrit
    Jul 11, 2019 at 12:12
  • @ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere Given that the Scottish Independence referendum turnout was much higher than the EU membership referendum, that would not change the point gerrit was making.
    – James
    Jul 11, 2019 at 14:25
  • @ James - no disagreement here. But using the word "voters" to mean two different things ([voters in the Independence Referendum] vs. [voters in the EU membership referendum]) in the same sentence could come across as misleading. Expressing as a percentage of each vote avoids this. Jul 11, 2019 at 14:39

Inappropriate codes answer cites a failed attempt from an integrated housing estate in the 1950s. But this is not just history; the problems are ongoing.

Consider this BBC news article from September 2017. In summary, catholic families fled their homes after threats, in a supposedly integrated street which had earlier been in the news due to loyalist terrorist¹ flags. Loyalist groups deny they were responsible, claiming that catholics were abusing the situation to stir up anti-loyalist sentiments. Some extracts from the article:

Four Catholic families in Belfast have left their homes having received sectarian threats, a housing authority has said.

They live in Cantrell Close, a shared housing area off the Ravenhill Road.

The PSNI said a paramilitary link to the threats is a "very clear line of enquiry".

Sinn Féin said the threats came from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a loyalist paramilitary group.


Cantrell Close is a housing development which is part of the Together Building United Communities programme.

The strategy, which was launched by the Northern Ireland Executive in 2013, is aimed at "improving community relations and building a united and shared society".

There was controversy in June when union flags and and UVF flags were put up in the area.


However, the East Belfast Community Initiative, which purportedly "mediates on behalf of ex-combatants linked to east Belfast UVF", said there was no proof that any threat was issued by the UVF.

"Sinn Féin, within their own comments, made clear that the PSNI did not identify the UVF when delivering these supposed threats," said the group.

"It is Sinn Féin that identified the UVF, and others have jumped on this bandwagon in order to push their anti-unionist cultural war."

¹The label "terrorist" is mine and not in the BBC article.

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