Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 December 2014

In spite of devolution and decommisioning, we still need to bridge the remaining divide

As part of Community Relations Week Robin Morton explains the economic cost of division within Northern Ireland’s society

Although the devolution and decommissioning processes have both now been completed, Northern Ireland is still far from being a normal society.

Many divisions remain and it is clear a genuinely shared society, one free from fear, remains a distant dream. In Belfast alone, there are still 88 interfaces, many marked by ugly peace walls. And according to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, 93% of housing estates in Northern Ireland are officially classified as being “segregated”, in that more than 80% of the households are either Protestant or Catholic.

That is why Community Relations Week, organised by the Community Relations Council, which consists of 150 events and runs through to Sunday, is a valuable and necessary initiative.

The programme provides a snapshot of the efforts in progress across the province to bring people together and build trust. But as has been clear for years, there is both a social and economic cost to Northern Ireland’s continuing divisions.

It is difficult to put a precise figure on the cost to the economy of division, but one of the best attempts was by consultants Deloitte in 2007. Its report suggested the divide could be costing Northern Ireland as much as £1.5bn a year, set against Northern Ireland’s annual spend of £8bn.

The Alliance Party estimated the bill for division at £1bn a year. This figure includes additional security costs and the additional expenditure of duplicated facilities such as leisure centres, libraries and schools.

Duncan Morrow, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council, says it is impossible to come up with a definitive figure, but he believes when everything is taken into account, it could exceed Deloitte’s £1.5bn. Tourism, he points out, is hampered by the tension which arises around summer flashpoint parades. The result is occupancy levels in the province’s hotels are low in July and August, at a time which should be peak season.

Dr Morrow points out that the Community Relations Council’s task is to highlight the fact that Northern Ireland’s economic problems cannot be tackled without a determined effort being made to remove the blight of sectarianism from this society.

The reality is that despite the raft of fair employment legislation, there can still be a chill factor in the workplace. In some cases, the geographical location of a workplace can deter would-be applicants from one section of the community or the other from considering applying.

And although there is more evidence of sixth-formers opting to pursue third level within Northern Ireland, we still suffer from a significant brain drain, which comes at an unquantifiable cost to enterprise and the economy.

In many cases, the continuing political division is cited as a reason why bright students, opt to stay put rather than return to Northern Ireland once they graduate. But while the economy is still recoiling from the worst effects of the recession, there is evidence of the green shoots of recovery as on the reconciliation front. This year, the theme of Community Relations Week is ‘Time to change the conversation?’ and the hope is that the debate will evolve from ‘If we have peace...’ to ‘Now that we have peace...’. Times are changing and Community Relations Week provides encouragement.

The Housing Executive is incorporating shared future ideals in its new build schemes, while it is developing a ‘shared neighbourhood’ programme for existing estates.

Bit by bit, people are getting to know one another and trust will develop which will reduce tension and encourage investment.

As Duncan Morrow declares, a commitment to shared prosperity needs new conversations about shared space, about who can live where, and who can safely say what and where. Good relations and the creation of a shared society are not just a social imperative — they are part of a dynamic which will ultimately help the Northern Ireland economy to punch its full weight.

Robin Morton is a freelance journalist and board member of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council, organisers of Community Relations Week

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