Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

15 years after Good Friday Agreement, and still no peace dividend for Northern Ireland

The peace process has not brought about the positive changes which were intended, says a new report
The peace process has not brought about the positive changes which were intended, says a new report
Paul Nolan
Paul Nolan

Northern Ireland is missing out on any dividend from the peace process and Stormont has no strategy to reverse our economic decline, a shock new report has concluded.

In a bold statement, the author of the second annual Northern Ireland Peace monitoring report said that "this is a lost generation economically".

The report issued by the Community Relations Council is a major stocktaking of the Northern Ireland peace process 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

Specially commissioned projections from Oxford Economics for the report suggest that we will not regain 2008 levels of employment until 2025.

But Paul Nolan, the author of the report, which is published on Wednesday, stressed that the peace itself is unlikely to break down, despite eruptions like the flag protests and the continuing efforts of the dissidents.

It is the economy that is shaky, however. The report warns that "any optimism has to be tempered by the recognition that shocks from the eurozone crisis or the wider global recession may capsize" the hopes of recovery, even in 2025.

It goes on: "The growth figures also rely not just on indigenous industries, but on Northern Ireland making itself appealing to outsiders.

"This is necessary to boost a sluggish tourist industry and to attract foreign direct investment."

It notes that our international image took a nosedive as a result of the stormy end to the marching season and the flag protests over the winter.

Even before that there were signs of difficulty. Despite investment in projects like Titanic Belfast, favourable testimonials by travel writers and the 'Our Time, Our Place' campaign, tourist revenue in 2012 actually declined by 12% year-on-year and the number of nights tourists spent here was down by a tenth.

Wages are also low by UK and Irish standards, especially in the private sector. "We don't have an innovative economy," said Dr Nolan. "If you look at the qualifications, you have to ask yourself why any company would want to come here unless they are going to get tax breaks. We don't have a particularly skilled workforce – 29% of workers have no qualifications whatsoever, and in terms of degrees we are lower than the UK average. Our education system is good at the top end but it seems that the brightest and best are still leaving despite peace."

Since 2001, when 159 people took their own lives here, Northern Ireland has moved from having the lowest suicide rate in the UK to the highest. The report notes: "Some of this may be due to the recession, but since the suicide increase began during the economic boom it is probably connected to the undercharged trauma of those who were children at the height of the Troubles."

The most vulnerable group is not young men, as is often assumed, but men aged 35-44.

This the second Peace Monitoring report commissioned by the CRC and some of the trends noted last year continue. The Catholic middle class is still upwardly mobile, and the position of Catholics generally is improving, but an analysis of census and other data shows that Protestants have not been overtaken.

In fact, analysis of census data shows that 16 out of the 20 most disadvantaged wards in Northern Ireland are majority Catholic.

At the other end of the scale, the 2001 census showed that 18 of the 20 most affluent wards were predominantly Protestant. By 2011, the latest census, four of these affluent wards had changed to having a Catholic majority. All of them were in Castlereagh, where Catholics appear to have moved into the new housing developments championed by the DUP to revitalise the area.

The position of women, on the other hand, is slipping back. More female jobs were lost in the recession than male ones, many of them were part-time, and over the last year there has been a marginal decrease in women's wages from 91% of the male average to 90%.

In the face of all these problems the report notes that Stormont has been at a loss. Only five Acts were passed in 2012 compared to 28 in 2011, lagging behind the Scottish or Welsh assemblies.

It speculates that "the failure is partly to do with the continuing focus on symbolic and divisive matters but the Assembly has also found it difficult to make progress on bread-and-butter issues".

Dr Nolan said "they are specifically not delivering in the areas of greatest social disadvantage, areas where you see flag protesters and dissident republicans".

Old-style politics blind to society's changing shape

On Wednesday morning the second annual Peace Monitoring report will be distributed to all 108 of our MLAs. It makes sobering reading for them – an economy in a tailspin and a political class that lacks the levers or the ability to tackle the crisis.

They must ask themselves whether what they are engaged in is the politics of distraction. Does foregrounding issues like the border poll and flag flying at City Hall help solve society's problems? Or is it a strategy to divert attention from them?

Politics has yet to catch up with two of the report's most striking findings. This is now a society of minorities and there is no longer the automatic identification that once existed between religion and politics.

This emerges from analysis of the 2011 census data which was published within the last few months. For the first time in history people born into the two main communities are now neck and neck numerically, but that does not translate so neatly into national identity as it once did. Some 48% of us were born into the Protestant community yet considerably less, 40%, consider themselves British.

There are nearly as many people from a Catholic background, 45%, but here the identification with nationality is even looser than in the Protestant community. Just over half, 25% out of 45%, consider themselves Irish. Another 21% of the entire population consider themselves Northern Irish, and less than one in 10 chose more than one identity. Statistics to be released in the coming weeks will show how this breaks down on the basis of birth community.

There are implications to being a society of minorities. For instance, it is impossible in a democracy for any one religious or ethnic community to gain dominance. It's no longer a viable strategy, and generally, people are happy with that.

To make it even clearer, the rate of sectarian, racist and homophobic violence is falling – people are by and large more at ease living with each other. There is even a modest, unpredicted, increase in mixed housing; surveys show an appetite for integrated education.

This social change is taking place against a background of economic stagnation, lost jobs and low wages. That calls for a new style of politics, not an attempt to pump new life into divisions which blighted our past.

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