Poverty in Northern Ireland is not an election issue: society just ‘shrugs’

Last month I sat in on a webinar organised by the Glencree Peace and Reconciliation Centre in which we listened to two very impressive youth workers from the most deprived areas of nationalist West Belfast. They told a shocking story of working against the odds to help young people in an environment of continuing poverty, family breakdown, crime and paramilitary intimidation that feels a million miles away from us in the comfortable South (and I dare say in comfortable middle-class areas in the North).

One told of having to deal with the continuing existence of no fewer than five paramilitary-cum-criminal gangs in his area (the most significant being the INLA). “There is nothing political about these gangs”, he stressed. “This is pure criminal gangsterism and drug dealing”. There has also been an increase in paramilitary-style punishment attacks. He said four young people had been shot directly outside his youth club in recent times, and on one occasion he counted 14 masked men standing on the street outside.

This “legacy of trauma” was largely ignored by the authorities, both policing and welfare. He could not get the police or ambulance service even to come out to deal with one of the shootings outside his club. “There is a real lack of inter-connectedness between the government bodies responsible for safeguarding children in impoverished areas like West Belfast”, he said, as young people were attracted into and then brutalised by criminal gangs.

Poverty was the “number one issue” in areas like these. In his area more than 90% of children were born to unmarried mothers and the suicide rate was twice that of Northern Ireland as a whole. There was little support for people like him trying to work with equivalent youth workers in neighbouring loyalist areas. In his most cynical moments he wondered if it was “in the interests of people in power to keep people here poor and hating.” He thought “tribalist fears” in Protestant working-class areas of Belfast that the Catholic community was growing and expanding at their expense (which would deepen after the 2021 Census results probably showed this happening throughout Northern Ireland) meant there was significant potential for future inter-communal violence. “Sectarianism is rife and continues to grow”, he said.

He did not think the efforts of youth workers to provide a safe environment for young people that would prevent them becoming radicalised into paramilitary gangs were at all appreciated by the authorities. He quoted the many millions of pounds spent by the PSNI on policing summer bonfires in both loyalist and republican areas of West Belfast. Yet a 2021 summer employment scheme for young people run by youth workers at a cost of £30,000 had seen its funding halved this year.

He also said the large amounts of EU Peace Programme funding rarely reached the most impoverished and Troubles-affected areas like the Lower Falls and Lower Shankill. He and his colleagues in the Catholic areas focussed in particular on keeping young people in education, and had seen educational achievement rise significantly as a result (although there was a widening gap between achievers and non-achievers). This was more difficult in Protestant areas, where there had been a tradition in the past of young men going straight into jobs in Belfast’s heavy industries. “The Protestant areas are 25 years behind”, he said.

What they really needed was longer-term, 10-year funding programmes to tackle the huge social problems these areas continued to face. He complained that most of the funding for cross-community work had disappeared, leaving only small grants from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs’ Reconciliation Fund.

His colleague said cross-community engagement was more vital than ever, as people retreated into their sectarian ghettoes. “It’s now Catholic areas all the way from the Lower Falls to Lisburn – the ‘peace walls’ keep it like that.” He said that when it came to poverty and sectarianism in poor working-class areas like these, the mainstream attitude in Northern Ireland was a “societal shrug”.

For a long time Northern Ireland has been one of the UK’s poorest regions. But it rarely if ever surfaces as a significant issue at election time (Does it in the Republic?). A December 2020 report for the NI Department of Communities by an expert panel of sociologists, childrens’ and anti-poverty activists1 concluded that, despite the commitment in the 1998 Northern Ireland Act to develop a strategy “to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation based on objective need”, 22 years on no such strategy existed. “People are living in poverty if their income and other resources are so low that they are unable to meet their basic needs [e.g. for food, clothing, housing and home heating], including participation in society”, was the working definition of their study.

Their report focussed, in particular, on the need to tackle child poverty, since “the majority of those living in poverty are families with children.” 27% of all children in the North (121,000) were living in poverty, it found (the 2021 figure for the Republic was a comparable 26.1% according to Social Justice Ireland – so we in the South have no reason to be smug). Child poverty rates have worsened since the mid-2010s, with the extreme poverty of destitution (notably homelessness) a growing problem, and the inadequacy of benefits, particularly Child Benefit, becoming “a significant driver of poverty.”

“If we took action to raise the position of households with children above the poverty line, this would improve the living standards of the majority of all those in poverty,” the report concluded. They quoted a leading British expert, Professor David Gordon of the University of Bristol: “”Redistribution [of resources] is the only solution to child poverty – the economics are very simple and are entirely concerned with redistribution.” The report’s authors suggested that it would cost £306 million per year to lift all Northern Irish children out of poverty, and £708 million per year to lift all 370,000 people currently below the poverty line above it. This is about 3.5% of total NI public expenditure, which doesn’t seem like a huge amount of money. However I am dubious about these figures, which (if my arithmetic is not mistaken), suggest that poverty could be eliminated in Northern Ireland at a cost of less than £2,000 per person per year.

The main underlying problem, the authors point out, is 12 years of Conservative rule in London. Whereas under Labour, which made it a priority, child poverty in the UK fell from 45% to 28% between 1999 and 2009, under the Tories it fell by a miserable two per cent more in the following decade. “The idea that social security benefits should provide an adequate minimum income below which no one should fall is now broken and historic commitments to an inclusive welfare state increasingly undermined,” the authors said. Successive Conservative governments had decided, pre-Covid pandemic, to run a low tax, low spending economy, and this had had a knock-on effect for a poor region like Northern Ireland.

They were fiercely critical of such UK government measures – duplicated in Northern Ireland – as the Universal Credit single monthly payment system (“widely regarded as a failure”); the “morally odious” two child policy, under which no benefits are paid to the poorest families for a third child or more; and the ‘benefit cap’ (a limit on the total amount of benefits any household can receive in a year). Three of the four authors of this report are well-known left-wingers, and they occasionally overstate their case: for example, talking about “the growing threat of mass unemployment” (this was in the middle of the pandemic), when in fact Northern Ireland unemployment has been at its lowest ever recorded levels in recent years – a pre-pandemic 2.3% at the end of 2019; a post-pandemic 2.5% in early 2022. (How often does one read about that in the media in the Republic, where the current unemployment rate is 5.5%?). But even with their occasionally dodgy statistics, their conclusions are powerful and persuasive ones.

They propose a number of measures to deal with this deep and recurrent societal problem: notably that the Executive and Assembly should draft an Anti-Poverty Act with specific targets to 2030 and beyond; introduce a weekly Child Payment for all 0-4 year olds and for 5-15 years olds in receipt of means-tested Free School Meals by 2024; and set up a Scottish-style Anti-Poverty Commission made up of people who have experienced poverty, people who work with them and experienced poverty researchers and policy-makers to advise the Executive. If a left-wing party like Sinn Fein are returned as the largest in the Assembly, they must surely agree that such a programme to lift the most underprivileged and often traumatised people (because their areas were hardest hit by the ‘Troubles’) out of poverty is shamefully long overdue.

P.S. I read an illuminating article in last week’s Belfast Telegraph by my former colleague Paul Burgess2 (we worked together in the early 1990s on the independent Opsahl Commission into ways forward for Northern Ireland at that deadlocked time). Burgess is about as open-minded, liberal and pro-Irish a unionist as one could meet: a talented working class man from the Shankill Road who went on to lead the UK chart-reaching punk rock band, Ruefrex, and to spend the past nearly 30 years living and working in Cork as a lecturer in applied social studies at University College Cork, academic writer, novelist and musician (and whose Twitter handle is in Irish).

He wrote about sharing the platform at Sinn Fein ‘Towards a united Ireland’ meetings in Cork with party leaders Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill. He said the capacity audience at a big meeting in Cork city “appeared elated at the inescapability of their own cause and seemed to prepared to pay lip service to the concerns of unionists, but little more.”

“An undeniable air of confident destiny prevailed. And a sense of political inevitability permeated the proceedings. One fellow panel member, drunk on the certainties provided by a rapt and uncritical republican audience, somewhat lost the run of himself. He suggested that liberal unionists were as rare as unicorns. And that, ‘once you had the unionist community by the balls, their hearts and minds would follow.” How the audience laughed.

Burgess went on: “It was perhaps in that moment that I fully realised the folly of my enterprise. Despite what they may say, Sinn Fein will never be prepared to re-examine and compromise those treasured shibboleths established from their formation, copper-fastened through the ‘armed struggle’ and seemingly legitimised in the present day.”

“Despite the emotional and historical baggage that their party will always carry for the Unionist community, Sinn Fein continue to believe that it is their vocation to deliver any new Ireland in their own unapologetic image. In short, they will never put country before party.

“Latterly, we do not have to look far to find examples of a mean-spirited stymying of unionist identity. From rose bushes to memorial stones, to the NI centenary illumination of Belfast City Hall, the chip, chip, chipping away at Protestant/unionist/loyalist symbolism and culture continues unabated.

“From these experiences, I have concluded that all the posturing around terms like ‘inclusion’, ‘shared futures’ and ‘everything being on the table’ represents little more than spin and hollow rhetoric. Prods are simply going to have to like it or lump it. And God knows what ‘lumping it’ would mean in Sinn Fein’s new Ireland.”

1 Recommendations for an Anti-Poverty Strategy: Report of the Expert Advisory Panel, Goretti Horgan, Pauline Leeson, Bernadette McAliskey and Mike Tomlinson

2 ‘A Shared Future? SF still believes its vocation is to deliver unity in its own, unapologetic image’, 29th April

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