Northern Ireland is significantly better off than the Republic, according to a new index, which has mapped affluence and deprivation across the entire island for the first time.
The findings indicate a high proportion of public-sector jobs have played a key role in insulating the North from the effects of the recession relative to the Republic.
Unemployment levels across many parts of Northern Ireland, for example, are half the rates south of the Border.
The North also has a much more even spread of affluence right across the six counties, whereas well-off areas in the Republic are mostly confined to major cities and their commuter belts.
Rural areas of the South are much more likely to suffer from extremes of deprivation, such as high unemployment, a falling population and poor levels of education.
By drawing on census data collected from both sides of the Border in 2011, researchers have been able to map the distribution of affluence and deprivation across the island, right down to street level.
These indicators – such as education levels, housing quality, employment figures and other indicators (see panel) – are transposed into a colour-coded map, where blue signifies affluence and red is deprivation.
The index was developed by social and economic consultants Trutz Haase and Dr Jonathan Pratschke, in collaboration with the International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD) and Maynooth University's All-Island Research Observatory (AIRO).
It was part-funded by the Department of the Environment and by the European Union.
“We were surprised to find that the North was more affluent than the South,” Mr Haase said. “I think that even after the recession, people still perceive the South as more affluent, but the biggest driving factor behind higher deprivation is unemployment. The North has been able to maintain a comparatively high level of employment, despite the unfavourable economic climate.”
Northern Ireland has the highest proportion of public-sector jobs in Britain, with almost 30 per cent of all posts funded by the taxpayer.
The proportion of public sector jobs in the Republic is about half that rate.
When measured by the State’s 60 local authorities, the majority of affluent areas were found in the North. The top five most affluent were Castlereagh, followed by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, North Down, Antrim and Lisburn.
The most deprived local-authority areas were in the South, with Limerick city, Donegal, Wexford, Mayo and north Tipperary accounting for the bottom five. Researchers acknowledge, however, that the data is three years old and the gap may have narrowed as a result of economic growth.
Another striking trend, Mr Haase said, was that affluence was much more likely to be distributed across rural areas in Northern Ireland.
People with high levels of education, prestigious occupations and a high social-class position appeared to be able to live in more rural areas in the North and commute to work in an urban centre.
In the Republic, however, rural or peripheral areas were much more likely to suffer from the extremes of deprivation, such as falling populations, poor education levels and high unemployment.
“The hinterland in the North is better connected to the main population centres,” he said, “so you can afford to have a concentration of jobs or services in a few urban areas, while keeping it accessible for the rest.
“That link is broken in the South. There are vast areas which are not just rural, but deprived as well. They don’t have the kind of connections to job opportunities, career prospects or essential services.
“With the closure of banks, post offices and Garda stations, you have a spiral effect. The more it happens, the less they become attractive or sustainable places to live.”
Mr Haase added: “You are seeing the effects of 30 or 40 years of migration. If you have people leaving, there is a thinning out of the working-age population, or a brain drain.”
The findings are likely to pose a fresh challenge to policymakers and will put a spotlight on failed attempts to provide more balanced development and job creation outside the big cities.
Mr Haase said that while there had been much rhetoric about the need for balanced regional development in recent decades, the figures showed in stark terms how far the regions had fallen behind the cities.
The map is available here: http://airo.maynoothuniversity.ie/external-content/deprivationindex2014