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.
Adam Tinson of the NPI pointed out at the launch on Tuesday that the shift in relative incomes is not just a matter of measuring movements of the median. Incomes across the range have declined in the North, and at a faster rate than in the UK as a whole.
The incomes of the bottom fifth in the North were, somewhat surprisingly, higher than those in the equivalent band in the UK as a whole in 2006/2007. Now they are lower.
The stark reality behind this flurry of statistics – and there are more – is that the promises of “a better life for all” consequent on a “peace dividend” have not materialised – despite globe-trotting ministerial missions to, last year alone, the US, Canada, Australia, China and other lands of advertised investment potential.
The fact that the relatively poor have done less well from the settlement than the relatively rich has to be seen in the context of poor areas having borne the brunt of the Troubles and on that ground alone might be said to have earned the major share of the promised bonanza. The opposite has happened.
What benefits the agreement has brought have had to do with the morale of communities rather than money in family coffers. And on this score – the loyalists are right – the Catholics have done better than the Protestants. It is even reported that Larne Catholics are holding their heads up these days.
Naught for your comfort
But irrespective of religion, if you are a school-leaver, particularly if you have left school without star grades, you will find naught for your comfort in the prospect ahead.
If you are a teenager or in your 20s on the Falls or the Shankill, the Brandywell or the village of Newbuildings outside Derry, you might react with something approaching rage when you are told again to settle down, don’t cause trouble, don’t undermine the peace.
If you do behave disruptively, expect to be denounced as a dissident or a thug by the element who appear to have done very well from the Belfast Agreement and who are presented on television every time you turn it on as the heroes of the hour who by hard work and moving on have set the world to rights for you.