Ballymena: How do attitudes to immigration in Northern Ireland compare with the rest of the UK?


Our final National Conversation on Immigration visit in Northern Ireland was to Ballymena, a town of 30,000 people near to the North Antrim coast. The citizens’ panel we met had constructive and balanced views about migration and believed that it had brought both benefits and some challenges to Northern Ireland.

“I just think there are positive and negative aspects [of immigration] in my mind. When I was working with people of different nationalities… I was in the health service, and they certainly have a lot to contribute, but then there are obviously down sides to immigration, a lot of them [British people] perceive them [migrants] as coming and using, costing us money, which I don’t think is necessarily the case. But I’m sitting right in the middle on this”

The Troubles and the loss of key industries meant that there was very little international immigration to Ballymena until relatively recently. The most recent population estimates suggest that 3.5% of the population of the Mid and East Antrim Council area were born outside the UK, below the average for Northern Ireland and well below the rest of the UK. Nevertheless, immigration was a salient issue for most of the Ballymena citizens’ panel and something that they talked about reasonably frequently.

There was sympathy for refugees, although participants had security concerns and wanted asylum-seekers to be rigorously vetted.  The citizens’ panel felt that “we should do as much as we can to help” and no-one wanted the numbers of refugees coming to be reduced, a view that not many other citizens’ panels have expressed.  These views may reflect a more middle class and religiously observant panel than elsewhere. At least half the panel were church or chapel-goers and many attended churches that had appeals for Syrian and other groups of refugees. Participants talked about the activity of their churches in the discussion.

Our last visit in Northern Ireland also gave us an opportunity to reflect and to consider the differences similarities in public attitudes to immigration in Northern Ireland, compared with the rest of the UK. This is an under-researched subject and there is no quantitative data to back up studies, as polling companies rarely carry out surveys in Northern Ireland. We met local stakeholders from the business and charity sectors and from public services in Belfast, and then organised citizens’ panels in Dungannon, Derry-Londonderry and lastly, Ballymena. These three locations each have had different experiences of immigration, and the issues that were raised varied between the citizens’ panels often reflected local issues.

Although the opinions that were raised in Northern Ireland were also views that were voiced elsewhere in the UK, we felt there were three differences. First, Brexit was a more salient issue than elsewhere in the UK. There was real anxiety about the impact of Brexit among both Leave and Remain supporters in the citizens’ panels. These worries centred on the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland’s economy and peace process.

Second, many of the citizens’ panel participants referred to their own family histories of migration. All parts of Ireland have experienced extensive emigration, to the rest of the UK, to the United States and wider. In Ballymena, all the older members of the citizens’ panel had lived been migrants at some time. We felt that among those who had a family history of migration there was more empathy towards international migrants in Northern Ireland.

Third, people’s views on migrant integration were different and there was a greater understanding of the reasons that migrants often socialised within their national or ethnic groups.

Your point about people coming here – as a young man I went to South Africa for four or five years and it was a great experience and we were like, and we had an Irish group, and we still mixed and had South African friends, but it’s human nature that you will stick with your own tribe, let’s call it. You can only mix so much.”

Northern Ireland has its own unique integration challenges: with faith and political tradition determining where many people live, the schools they attend and their friendship networks. Our citizens’ panels referred to this reality when discussing migrant integration. But they also brought up their own experiences of migration and of ‘sticking together’.

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