Belfast Telegraph

How the seeds of today's welfare problems were sown in the 1970s

By Henry McDonald

Britain's most potent weapon in countering the Provisional IRA insurgency and the Ulster loyalist backlash to it was not emergency powers, helicopters, hi-tech surveillance equipment, the use of informers or even the deployment of the SAS.

While all these measures were able to suppress and grind down the paramilitary campaigns there was one other state instrument that proved decisive in the conflict and helped massively in delivering the peace process - money.

When the British inherited local power from the unionist establishment at the start of the Troubles, Labour and Tory governments alike maintained a policy of throwing cash at the problem.

Direct rule administrations massively expanded the Northern Ireland public sector, even making it immune from the more savage cuts imposed under Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s. In addition, while state capital projects were being slashed in the northern and celtic heartlands of old Labour across the water during the Thatcherism experiment, the mandarins of the NIO and their Conservative ministers didn't just leave the local welfare state alone, they actually oversaw its expansion.

The net result of the UK's Treasury's largesse through 25 years of violence (leaving aside the massive sums spent on the security budget) was two-fold. Firstly, there was the creation of a growing Catholic middle class who relied increasingly on the British-sponsored state sector and its satellite jobs - ranging from teaching and the law to the Civil Service and the local NHS. The advancement of this sector - equally aided by a new and determined educate-to-liberate ethos within the Catholic community - meant there was and remains a significant section of the nationalist middle class with a stake in Northern Ireland and even (but don't say it too loud) the union itself.

Secondly, those in the cockpits of the conflict like west Belfast saw their areas redeveloped and transformed under projects such as the Housing Executive's highly successful slum clearance and rebuilding programme from the mid to late 1970s onwards. A large segment of this part of society remains wholly reliant on social welfare. In most cases it's hardly their fault, given old unionist-sponsored sectarian discrimination in the workplace combined with a Provo policy of shooting business executives and burning down factories in areas like the west of the city at a time when the IRA leadership was infected with an anti-enterprise ultra-left ideology that saw all multi-national investment as evil.

Those who decry the admittedly far too high rates of DLA and other welfare benefits forget that these are also among the many legacies of the Troubles. That in effect those people caught in the welfare trap are the victims of a successful counter-terrorism policy that at the very least helped stop this place tipping into the abyss of outright civil war.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph