Equality, austerity and peace in 2016

7 Jan 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 12 Jan 2016

Panel members at the October conference which led to the report
Panel members at the October conference which led to the report

Scope looks at the Equality Coalition's recent report into a shrinking public purse, stagnant economy and the risk of violence - and concludes a relapse is currently unlikely but 2016 will be a big year for NI generally.

This could be a pivotal year for Northern Ireland.

Much of what Scope looks at in the next couple of months is likely to face forward and think about where our economy and community go during a time when, depending on how you look at it, we face many problems and many opportunities.

A lot of public debate will continue to focus on the past, especially as there are many significant centenaries in 2016, and all the well-worn and inert wrangles on a shared society, legacy of conflict, cultural squabbles and the like.

But our past is in our future, true everywhere but in few places is it more clear than in Northern Ireland. What about the point where our troubled past collides with our socioeconomic future?

We wrote previously about a conference in October last year organised by the Equality Coalition – broadly, a collection of local NGOs headed up by the Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ) – that questioned whether austerity measures (for want of a better term) could risk public disorder recidivism in Northern Ireland.

In December they published their report off the back of the conference and it is certainly worth reading, whether or not you ultimately think our economic outlook will fall so far as to precipitate sectarian violence.

At the very least, the report is able to point to the fact that governments in both London and Dublin said previously that a tangible socioeconomic benefit is required for all areas to experience “a proportionate peace dividend” – including loyalist and nationalist areas that may have felt little or no improvements at all since 1998.

“...both Governments recognise that many disadvantaged areas, including areas which are predominantly loyalist or nationalist, which have suffered the worst impact of the violence and alienation of the past, have not experienced a proportionate peace dividend. They recognise that unless the economic and social profile of these communities is positively transformed, the reality of a fully peaceful and healthy society will not be complete.” - Paragraph 28 Joint Declaration of the British and Irish Governments 2003


Ultimately the report paints a picture of austerity as a genuine risk to local peace, with some of those involved speaking out about this at the launch of the paper.

They have called for an acknowledgement of Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances and for a certain financial stipend to try and compensate for this.

Patricia McKeown of UNISON said: “On official figures we have been subjected to £3.7 billion of cuts already and there is more to come from the Tories, neither Westminster nor domestic austerity is acceptable.

“There are policy choices the local Executive can take to increase revenues from the rich rather than further cutting services. It is time for our government to start sharing power, rather than dividing resources on an unfair basis.”

Daniel Holder, from CAJ, said “One of the pillars of the peace settlement was supposed to be moving away from historic patterns of inequality and deprivation, ‘austerity’ is putting those trends into reverse gear. It is not a question of us being a ‘special case’, it is a question that inequality here in a divided and post conflict society impacts differently, and London appears oblivious to this.”

It’s not all dreadful news, however. Despite some loud claims about how Northern Ireland is in no better a place than it was during the Troubles, it would be very surprising if a significant majority of the public did not hold opinions forcefully in opposition to that one.

Moreover, there has now been a long and mostly clean break from violence since the Good Friday Agreement while many still have the Troubles firmly within their living memory.

Community support for any relapse into violence is likely to be much reduced when compared with the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

But, again, a closer look complicates the conclusion. While there have been some major improvements across NI in the past two decades, some areas have, at best, stagnated.

The economic outlook of many loyalist and nationalist areas will not have improved since 1998 and last year saw some major job-market bloodbaths. The Caterpillar and Michelin announcements, for instance, will deeply bruise their local areas.

If public services also suffer any sort of crisis – and, bear in mind, our health service is actually at risk of collapsing (albeit a collapse will most likely lead to a rationalisation of offered services rather than a disappearance, mere disaster rather than catastrophe) – then claims that quality of life has actually gone down for some local people since Stormont’s resurrection will not actually sound so outlandish.

Of course, this does not mean they would not have been even worse with ongoing violence, but political violence is not the preserve of rationalists.

In ten years time, what will Northern Ireland look like? Can anyone offer a prediction with any real confidence? It’s a difficult thing to do, but that means that right now it’s all to play for.

2016 – with its elections, a shaky economic recovery and predictions of another collapse, the apparent or actual realities of our local cultural wars, the approach of the UK’s EU referendum, the ongoing (and growing) migrant crisis, and on and on – will set the tone.

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