Peace brings no dividend to the poorest in the North
Opinion: When it comes to community morale, Catholics doing better than Protestants
‘If you are a teenager or in your 20s on the Falls or the Shankill . . . you might react with something approaching rage when you are told again to settle down, don’t cause trouble, don’t undermine the peace.’ Above, artists working on the Peace wall in West Belfast, in 2009. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire
There has been no improvement in the day-to-day lives of a majority of people in Northern Ireland since the restoration of the power-sharing executive in May 2007. Instead, things have become worse. In broad terms, the poorer you are the harder you are likely to have been hit. This is one of the reasons for the continuing relative fragility of the Stormont institutions.
It is significant that the Assembly and Executive – in the view of some, pre-programmed from the outset to deadlock on Orange-Green issues – is currently also bogged down in disagreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin on implementation of the Westminster government’s programme of welfare cuts – or “reforms”, in the obfuscatory language of British ministers.
“These findings are a wake-up call for governments in Stormont and Westminster,” said Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), in Belfast on Tuesday. She was introducing a report based on the latest data on the extent and nature of poverty in the North. The report had been compiled for the JRF by the New Policy Institute, an independent UK think tank with a focus on evidence-based research on social and economic issues.
The report, Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion in Northern Ireland , shows that household incomes fell by an average of 9 per cent in real terms between 2006 and 2007, but incomes of households in the bottom fifth of the income range fell by far more – 16 per cent – in the same period: an average of £39 a week less to live on.
The restoration of the Stormont institutions was agreed at the St Andrews talks in October 2006 and realised in the Assembly elections of May 2007.
Over the three years to 2011/2012 – the most recent period for which figures are available – the UK poverty rate fell for children and pensioners. The main reason for this was that median incomes had fallen.
Since the poverty line is set at 60 per cent of median income, it automatically falls with the median, resulting in large numbers of people appearing to have been lifted out of poverty even when their income has merely remained steady or even decreased. (This is the basis of regular Westminster coalition claims that poverty across the UK is coming down.)
Thus the particular, dismaying significance of poverty in the North going up even as the poverty line comes down. There are now tens of thousands of people in the North with incomes which define them as living above the poverty line but who would have been deemed to be living below the line according to the measure which obtained in 2006/2007.