Equality, austerity and the threat of violence
Austerity economics risks reversing progress on various local inequalities and could cause a return to violence, according to a new report.
Research supported by the Equality Coalition – a collection of NGOs operating in NI, administered by the Committee for the Administration of Justice – is being put together into The Equality Impacts of the Stormont House Agreement on the ‘two main communities’, with a summary paper released earlier this month.
This summary paper outlines reasons to worry about social unrest and also provides recommendations to try and avoid any relapse of the Troubles. However, its conclusions are grim.
“The hegemony of austerity threatens the whole raft of GFA reforms. In other words, none of the equality achievements associated with the GFA can be taken as a give – they must continue to be supported and defended.
“Equality was not an optional extra to the GFA – it was the principle on which reconciliation and peacebuilding was to be built. This is as true in 2015 as it was in 1998 – anyone who ignores this fact risks sleepwalking into the past.”
Most of the summary report focuses on well-known facts, such as the Catholic/nationalist dominance of the worst-off areas of Northern Ireland, but in truth relative poverty in Northern Ireland is not perceived that way by many of the people who live it.
This fact is given an airing, but the paper is also keenly aware that feelings about our past still have the ability to dictate our future.
“The decoupling of equality from peacebuilding marks a dangerous new juncture in the peace process. Sectarian inequality was a catalyst for instability in the past and it would be cavalier to assume that it no longer matters in Northern Ireland.
“In terms of the three ethnic blocs identified – Protestant, Catholic and ‘Other’ – all have specific reason to need equality protections and therefore should be profoundly concerned with the absence of any equality agenda within the SHA.”
The report looks at the equality impacts of the Stormont House Agreement (SHA), focusing primarily on the traditional pair of communities, noting of the SHA that “in the words of the UK government, it aimed at: ‘providing a new approach to some of the most difficult issues left over from Northern Ireland’s past’ and as offering ‘a new start and a far more hopeful future’.”
Although the SHA had broad aims, handling issues such as flags, emblems and dealing with the past, most of it concerns an economic restructuring of Northern Ireland – including a significantly reduced public sector workforce, Welfare Reform and devolution of corporation tax powers.
The Equality Coalition says these financial measures are not a new approach but an attempt to get over Stormont difficulties around implementing Westminster’s austerity measures, adding: “Disagreements over implementation meant that unlike the Haass talks a year earlier, ‘austerity’ now provided one of the main threats to the political institutions, explaining the introduction of these measures.”
It further identifies potential problems with inequalities both straddling both the main communities – but also within them.
In the past 20 years there have been tangible improvements on certain economic indicators, with the employment and economic activity rates of Catholic/nationalist adults moving much closer to those of Protestants/unionists.
However, the paper also says that “in areas beyond employment, there are still striking differences between Protestants and Catholics”, and that there are wide disparities in housing and health, as well as the “crucial area” of social security.
It says NI “remains some distance away” from removing inequalities between the two main communities – while new local demographic transitions make the overall picture more complicated and increase the importance of the exhaustive (in an NI sense) ‘Other’ designation.
“The report emphasises that any gains in equality were achieved in the context of sustained state intervention with international oversight. The report recognises that it is difficult to predict the impact of the SHA in the absence of clarity around how the processes set out in it will unfold.
“It also recognises that economic downturns do not guarantee inequality or indeed require inequality. However, in our view the data indicates that the economic model made explicit in the financial annex to the SHA is likely to deepen and widen inequality – both generally (between richer and poorer people) and in terms of the differences between Protestants and Catholics.
“There is now evidence of any ‘equality-proofing’ of the measures proposed in the SHA and good reason to assume they are more likely to exacerbate rather than ameliorate inequalities, and even reverse some of the recent equality gains.”
Its recommendations include political commitment to tackle the areas of stubborn inequality in NI, equality proofing of the SHA, more analysis of equality in the labour force, equality-impact analysis of cuts, a needs-based anti-poverty strategy, review of employment laws, public dialogue with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, section 75 appraisials of “key policies”, pressure on SHA guarantors and “a fundamental British and Irish review of the GFA” in the event of Stormont collapse or suspension of its welfare powers.
Back to the future
The Troubles remain so recent that it is fully understandable fears still exist over a relapse and the circumstances that could lead to such happening.
Much of the summary paper focuses on the different experiences of Catholics and Protestants in the labour market, access to housing, health and welfare.
However, perhaps a bigger focus should be on increasing inequalities within existing communities – but, most of all, within society as a whole.
It remains true that, statistically speaking, a huge majority of the worst deprivation in Northern Ireland is found in areas where there is a significant predominance of Catholic/nationalist residents.
But Northern Ireland views itself through a different prism now. The Good Friday Agreement was a watershed moment, whether you are a fan of it or not, and current arguments over socioeconomic circumstances lead back to that point more than the 1960s and 1970s, civil rights, gerrymandering and the rest.
Many predominantly loyalist areas – which themselves are often areas of high deprivation, especially relative to the Protestant/unionist community as a whole – simply have not felt the effects of all the great things they are told have happened in Northern Ireland since 1998.
The reasons for this are many and complicated, and include political considerations that are firmly to do with things that have happened in the past rather than jobs and education – such as the ascendency of Sinn Féin.
There are, however, also many socioeconomic reasons, and resentment that the benefits of any economic growth have not transferred in any tangible way to numerous loyalist communities across Northern Ireland.
A very similar picture emerges across our traditional divide where, as the report points out, there is still significant deprivation.
Austerity – if that’s what you want to call the current Westminster ethos – is a cross-community experience and it would be ironic if it leads to violent recidivism between loyalist and Republican factions. Which is not to say that this cannot happen, although hopefully it is unlikely, certainly unlikely to be on a scale matching what went before.
Political violence occurs after those who take part in it feel the social contract has broken down. If people at the bottom feel that they have been cut adrift from what they are told is progress, then that is a real risk.
The residues of our recent past still obviously linger which, at the very least, mean’s NI is more susceptible to unrest than other parts of the UK. Because of Northern Ireland’s history – all of it – any violent reaction to poverty would risk falling down on sectarian lines.
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