Belfast Telegraph

We must act now to break the vicious cycle of poverty

Ian Parsley explains the thinking behind the Centre for Social Justice’s findings on ‘social breakdown’

In 2007, the Alliance Party was highlighting the costs of social division in Northern Ireland, while the Centre for Social Justice was publishing its Breakthrough Britain report into the costs of social breakdown in Great Britain. The two are, in popular political parlance, inextricably linked.

For all the obvious hallmarks of social division and conflict, the Breakthrough Northern Ireland report, published today, shows a society where the pathways to poverty identified by the Centre for Social Justice - welfare dependency, family breakdown, addiction, indebtedness and educational under- achievement - are exactly the same as anywhere else.

The levels of worklessness, trends in community breakdown and extent of mental illness, are typical of a region in the northern UK, but exacerbated by communal conflict and social segregation.

These trends can be reversed - but to avoid yet another integenerational cycle of whole communities condemned to poverty, urgent action is needed by political leaders.

Thus a political system which has for so long focused purely on delivering political stability by balancing communal interests must now change its focus to delivering political action by focusing on common goals to tackle poverty.

The new coalition Government, for its part, has already set out proposals aimed primarily at helping people return to work - notably, during the project, Iain Duncan Smith visited Belfast and heard the stories of mothers unable to return to work due to lack of care facilities and financial incentives.

That a minister in the Executive immediately chose to oppose these proposals, without any reference whatsoever to the wide body of analysis and evidence available, is a sad indication of an unwillingness to make the fundamental political change necessary to tackle poverty seriously. Northern Ireland's devolved settlement allows for immediate policy and legislative changes, by ensuring, for example, that adequate care facilities are available or that recovery programmes to tackle addiction are prioritised.

The voluntary and community sector already offers many excellent examples of the type of flexible local work necessary through the models of social enterprise it has promoted, the community regeneration projects it is leading, or the addiction and debt recovery programmes already ongoing.

It has been a cornerstone of the project that it is not just about what Northern Ireland can learn, but also what it can teach others.

The biggest lesson of all is that the pathways to poverty are interconnected - and so must the solutions be. Notions, for example, that Northern Ireland's educational system is fit for purpose when so many people leave it without qualifications, or that Northern Ireland's skills base is adequate when economic inactivity is the highest in the UK, have to be challenged and recognised as interlinked.

We must be more ambitious than simply following other jurisdictions' lead on social policy; we must be more ambitious than to allow a political debate based solely on identities rather than issues; we must be more ambitious than meekly to accept intergenerational poverty as a fact of life. The last decade has seen remarkable strides towards political stability - not all of which were popular at the time. There is no reason the next decade should not see similar strides to tackle poverty - by working with a strong and flexible voluntary and community sector to make Northern Ireland a leader in ensuring that work pays, education is valued, and everyone is given a fair chance.

Ian Parsley is the CSJ’s Northern Ireland adviser

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