New research based on census data shows that about half the population now lives in areas that are more than 90 per cent Protestant or more than 90 per cent Catholic. Only about 7 per cent live in areas with roughly equal numbers of both.
The figures show that over the past two decades the number of predominantly Catholic wards has trebled to 120, while the number of areas that are almost exclusively Protestant has doubled to 115. Of 51 wards in Belfast, 35 are at least 90 per cent of one religion or the other.
The segregation is seen as a result of increased community polarisation. It is also in itself a cause of further division and ignorance of 'the other side'.
The chairman of the Fair Employment Commission, Robert Cooper, said the Independent On Sunday research was confirmed by his own organisation's analysis. He added: 'The increasing degree of segregation makes it more difficult to secure fair participation and equality of opportunity in employment.'
Kevin McNamara, Labour's Northern Ireland spokesman, said of the segregation: 'It's understandable, but it's very distressing and very sad. One does not want a polarisation of people. But the key to it for both communities is that they should feel secure, and it is the role of the security forces to gain the support and trust from all sections of the community.'
Some degree of segregation has always been a feature of life in Northern Ireland, but the disclosure of its extent has surprised many. One common reaction was: 'I knew it was bad, but I didn't know it was this bad.'
BBC Radio Ulster devoted almost an hour yesterday to a discussion of the issues arising from the segregation. Gordon Moore, a trade union official since the 1940s, said: 'I'm stunned by the report, because I thought we had moved further on in the past 20 years. I'm saddened to hear that is the position and I can see it as a hopeless task now to reverse this.'
Jackie Hutchinson, a community worker in the Shankill district of Belfast, which is 99 per cent Protestant, described the lives of teenagers in his area, where many become involved with loyalist paramilitary groups. 'Young people start off in primary school: they are segregated. They go to secondary school: they are segregated. They leave school, no hope of getting a job because there's no inward investment, so they go to a youth training programme.
'There are separate YTPs for Catholics and Protestants . . . Because they don't have any money they are stuck in their own areas, so they don't get to see other people with other religions or other cultures.'