Economic deprivation, unemployment, and the sectarian divide

There has been much discussion in recent days, both in Stormont and here on Slugger, on Disability Living Allowance. Specifically, following the Minister for Social Development Mervyn Storey’s disclosure in the Assembly that West Belfast is the area with the highest levels of DLA claimants, there has been debate about whether DLA claimant levels are higher in predominantly Catholic areas. Instead of tiptoeing gently around the issue, I thought it would be interesting to see if there was indeed a relationship between the number of DLA claimants and the number of Catholics in an area. The graph below shows Northern Ireland’s 582 wards, showing the relationship between DLA claimant numbers (in 2014) and the percentage of the population belonging to the Catholic community in the 2011 census.

DLA by Ward by Catholic

As one might expect, the relationship is very weak. Although there is something there; of the 32 wards where the number of DLA claimants is over 20% of the population, 26 are wards where Catholics comprise over 75% of the population, and only two are in wards where Catholics comprise less than 25% of the population. There is also a cluster of wards where both the Catholic population and the number of DLA claimants is less than 10%.

There is a much better predictor of the number of DLA claimants, and economic inactivity more generally, than community background. A much more reliable indicator of economic inactivity is multiple deprivation. The Northern Ireland Multiple Deprivation Measure (NIMDM) ranks each ward in Northern Ireland based on a number of deprivation criteria, such as income, employment, health and education, going from 1 (most deprived) to 582 (least deprived). A plot of DLA claimants against this the multiple deprivation score gives a much stronger trend.

Working Age DLA by Ward

There is a very strong relationship between the deprivation measure and the number of DLA claimants in an area. Of course, a simple focus on DLA claimants does not give a complete picture of unemployment and economic activity. The following graph shows the relationship between combined unemployment and economic inactivity in an area, and deprivation. I have defined the metric as follows. First, I took the sum of all people unemployed and those economically inactive for any reason other than care, retirement, or education. I then divided this by the total of the economically active, unemployed, and economically inactive as defined above. Essentially, it is the percentage of the working age population who aren’t working for reasons other than care, education, or retirement.

Working Age Unemp or Inactive by Deprivation

Again, the relationship between total unemployment and inactivity, and deprivation, is very strong.

So why are most of the wards, where over 20% of the working age population claim DLA, in predominantly Catholic areas? A key reason for this is the simple fact that predominantly Catholic areas tend to be poorer and suffer more from economic deprivation than areas that are predominantly Protestant. In the bar chart below, I have apportioned the 582 Northern Ireland wards into 20 groups, going from 1 (most deprived) to 20 (least deprived). Within these groups, I have charted how many of these areas are predominantly Catholic (over 75% of the population Catholic), mixed areas (between 25% and 75% of the population Catholic), and predominantly Protestant (less than 25% of the population Catholic). The extent to which poorer areas tend to be Catholic, and more affluent areas tend to be Protestant, is apparent.

Deprivation and Demographics

By the measure defined above, of Northern Ireland’s 582 wards, 134 are predominantly Catholic, 230 are mixed, and 218 are predominantly Protestant. Of the poorest 29 wards, 19 are Catholic, 4 are mixed and 6 are Protestant. Of the 29 most affluent wards, 20 are predominantly Protestant, 9 are mixed, and there is not one single ward where Catholics comprise over 75% of the population. The reason why there are more DLA claimants in Catholic areas, and why economic inactivity and unemployment is higher more generally, is that economically deprived areas tend to be predominantly Catholic.

So, even when economic deprivation is taken into account, does the religious background of an area make a difference to the numbers of unemployed and economically inactive? The graph below shows the same data as the scatter chart above, except that each ward has been colour coded into predominantly Catholic, predominantly Protestant, and mixed areas. A trendline has been added for each of the three groups.

Working Age Unemp or Inactive by Deprivation and Demographics

As it happens, even when deprivation is taken into account, predominantly Catholic areas do tend to have higher levels of unemployment and economic inactivity than predominantly Protestant areas. This trend can be seen in the equivalent graph for working age DLA claimants.

Working Age DLA by Ward and Demographics

The link between community background and unemployment/inactivity is a complex one. It is true that high levels of unemployment and inactivity do tend to occur in largely Catholic areas, but this is predominantly due to the fact that very economically deprived areas tend to be Catholic for structural and historical reasons. However, even when this is factored in, there is a small but persistent gap between levels of unemployment and economic inactivity between predominantly Catholic and Protestant areas. Whilst the link between community background, deprivation and economic activity is a complex and sensitive one, dealing with it head on is vital if the economic potential of Northern Ireland is to be unlocked, whichever side of the demographic divide one happens to be on.

Data used in this analysis can be found in this Google Spreadsheet.

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  • barnshee

    Can you point me to your source data please

  • NMS

    Excellent analysis of the figures, putting them clearly in the wider context, the spreadsheet lays out the information in a very stark way. The concentration of wards in West & North Belfast in the bottom twenty is extraordinary. Perhaps the public reps for the two areas might be asked to explain why their areas continue to be so poor, despite the incredible level of public spending. In normal societies such concentrated poverty would be the election issue, not flags and sectarian headcounts.

    However the wider question as to why Northern Ireland has a much higher level of claimants than either Ireland or Britain remains unanswered, but thank you again for your efforts to inform the debate.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Good article SoD what surprised me was Falls, New Lodge and Shankill Wards falling within the top 4 worst effected places. These Wards are Inner City Belfast Wards, this means that a Government Policy to regenerate the Belfast Inner City as failed !

  • Surveyor

    DLA can be claimed even if you have a job, it’s not solely a benefit for
    unemployed or economically inactive people. I don’t know if that would
    skewer your findings or not but have you taken it into account?

  • salmonofdata

    The DLA claimant data and the unemployed/inactive data are independent, as you say there will be DLA claimants not included in the economic inactive numbers. Although there is obviously a large overlap.

  • salmonofdata

    There is a link to a spreadsheet at the end of the post. All of the raw input datasets were taken from

  • Korhomme

    Impressive data sets and graphs, SoD! And yes, I appreciate the work behind it.

  • Brian O’Neill

    Good job salmon. We need more of this type of data analysis and looking at the facts.

  • Reader

    And the explanation of Multiple Deprivation Measures (NIMDM) is here:
    It’s not surprising you found lots of correlations – a lot of the measures used on the X and Y axes are counting the same things, and the more money you receive from the Government, the more deprived you are.

  • Old Mortality

    ‘In normal societies such concentrated poverty would be the election issue, not flags and sectarian headcounts.’

    Perhaps because they are quite at ease with their poverty. It’s the rest of us who should be most concerned.

  • Old Mortality

    That thought occurred to me as well. anyone struggling on a very low income but shunned handouts, you would be missed by the statistical radar. I’m sure there are still a few such people around.

  • Paddy Reilly

    At present Catholics in Northern Ireland do not have significantly larger families than Protestants: the difference is minimal. Also, throughout Europe it has been found that Catholics have a lower suicide rate than Protestants.

  • barnshee


  • barnshee

    I like the ” at present”

    I think you need to have a rethink

  • Paddy Reilly

    As the article says “the extent of this differential is now narrowing as a result of the more rapid recent decline in the average size of Catholic families.” Yes, 60 year old Catholics may have twice as many brothers & sisters as Protestants, but 16 year olds are much the same.

  • Paddy Reilly

    The Catholic birth rate is around 14.3 per 1000 population and the Protestant rate 12.6. The average birth rate in Northern Ireland as a whole is 13.9.

  • Gingray

    Brilliant Salmon of Data!
    This is great analysis, are you just plugging the data sets into excel or equivalent or do you have some other program?

    Would be interesting to see if nationality is impacted on this – are the poorest areas more irish or northern irish, and the richest more BritisH or northern irish.


  • Virginia

    That was well done. Not to be too nerdy, but I have spreadsheet envy.

  • barnshee

    Er its three times as ” many brothers and sisters”
    and with the emphasis on “recent”

  • It would be interesting if we could strip the Belfast commuter belt out of the data. Truth is this area is largely portestant historically, and benefits from being in the hinterland of Belfast. If we were to look at all wards say West of the Bann, would we notice a religious divide at all?

  • NMS

    In Ireland, throughout both the Celtic Tiger and bubble periods the number of people claiming certain SW benefits increased dramatically, in particular One Parent Family Benefit. Despite no shortage of available employment, the number of claimants increased from 45,779 in 1995 to 92,326 in 2010 I mention it here because the current Minister for Social Protection has decided to tackle the issue head-on and has introduced a series of amendments to the scheme, which will see the number of people (women mainly) and the cost fall to just €599M in 2015 from €1,110M in 2010.

    She is assisted by quite strong growth in employment numbers, which this time around are not reflected by large inward migration. Certain political groupings, specifically Sinn Féin and the various brands of Trotskyism have opposed the changes, which support those previously receiving the payment while they increase their existing work hours or return to employment.

    The Sinn Féin approach is of particular interest as the dominant political organisation in the majority of the most deprived wards in Northern Ireland. Does the organisation have any real interest in reducing high rates of dependency? An economically vibrant public is far less likely to vote SF.

    There is broad support for the changes being implemented by Ms. Burton. The problem for Northern Ireland is to get the substantial increase in employment required to absorb those on various supports. However the jobs being available are just part of the picture, people must be actively encouraged to take up work.

  • Dullahan

    Research in the US strongly suggests that larger families actually decrease the risk of suicide mortality. (

  • Mac an Aistrigh

    Evidence based policy making; or policy based evidence making?

  • Jonny 28

    Look at 2011 census tables. Catholics birth rate is almost 17 per 1000, and the protestant 10 per 1000.

  • salmonofdata

    Cheers. I do most visualization in Excel, and use Tableau for interactive stuff. For data wrangling and processing Access or Excel usually does the job, although I occasionally use MySQL and R.

  • USA

    Thanks Salmon, nice work.

  • Séamus

    Magilligan seems an odd aberration.

  • Superfluous

    Older people are wealthier than the young. Younger people are more likely to be parents, and being a single parent is heavily linked to childhood deprivation (presumably meaning a young population would be more deprived on average). Considering the Catholic population is younger than the Protestant population it would be interesting to see if the difference in deprivation holds up for say people in their 20s or 30s.

    (P.S. granted this wouldn’t explain DLA difference since I assume DLA claimants are older.)

  • Dullahan

    The Denney et al. study used a large, nationally representative sample of non-institutionalized adults aged 18 and older in all parts of the U.S.