Poverty and ethnicity in Northern Ireland - why we need more research

4th Feb 2013

Northern Ireland's ethnic diversity is growing but we don't know enough about the link between poverty and ethnicity.

There is so much we do not know about the relationship between poverty and ethnicity in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has changed massively in recent years. One aspect of this change is its growing ethnic diversity. The 2001 Census, which was the first in Northern Ireland to ask about ethnicity, counted the minority ethnic population as being 0.7% of the total population. By 2011, this was 1.7%.

Our new report examines what we know about how poverty and ethnicity in Northern Ireland are linked. Contrary to the impression sometimes given, there are longstanding ethnic minority communities in Northern Ireland. Over the last decade these have been joined by new migrants, particularly from Poland, Lithuania and Slovakia. One key difference between Northern Ireland and most of Great Britain is, of course, sectarianism. This affects people from outside the two main Protestant and Catholic communities in complex ways. Anecdotally, it can make for tricky decisions about where to live, which school to send children to and which services to use. It also easily overshadows broader questions of ethnicity.

As is the case in other parts of the UK, many people from ethnic minority groups are highly skilled and qualified, but face barriers in translating this into good quality work. Others have low skills and find it very hard to increase their qualifications. The evidence is patchy but suggests that many people from ethnic minority groups are stuck in low-paid work with a high risk of poverty. This is compounded by experiences of racism among employees, pupils and service users, which have met with very mixed responses.

Race equality policy in Northern Ireland has always lagged behind Great Britain. It was only in 1997 that the Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order became law, 21 years after the equivalent in Britain. Policy has moved forward since then, with the first Racial Equality Strategy published in 2005. However, the implementation of race equality legislation and policies have been painfully slow and there is little monitoring to see how effective they really are. Later this year the Government will publish an updated Racial Equality Strategy which we hope will lead to improvements.

Policy is, of course, often made with little reference to evidence. But it is much harder to get it right in an information vacuum. This review of evidence has highlighted how much we do not know about the relationship between poverty and ethnicity in Northern Ireland. There is very little good evidence about health, education or housing. Even our understanding of how different groups do in the labour market and the impact of this on poverty is pretty weak. We have commissioned further research to try to plug some of these gaps.

However, it is vital that the Government and others move quickly to use the data that does exist to get a better picture of the population and understand what is needed across all ethnicities in Northern Ireland.