The state we're in: Stark choices facing us about how we want to live in Northern Ireland - from education and health, to the economy and the past
This may be the last time we get the sustained attention of the British, Irish and - to some extent - American governments. We should make the most of it. There won't be a better moment to do business with the three of them.
Before looking at the future we need a view of the present and to decide how we want things to change. We need to know what sort of place this is, what our choices are and what sort of future we want as a society.
Do we want Northern Ireland to be a place divided into two main local communities who are educated separately and tend to live separately too? Or do we want a more shared society where we may have to accept cultural symbols, like Orange or nationalist regalia, which we don't feel entirely comfortable with.
Do we want a society where we put resources into shared cultural experiences like Belfast's Culture night? Or are we a society which places a higher priority on translating turgid departmental papers, which nobody may ever read, into Irish and Ulster-Scots, or providing rates relief to Orange halls rather than funding flagship cultural products like the Ulster Orchestra, the cross-community Mela festival hosted by the Indian community and Culture Night in Belfast.
Are we going to be about commemorating and treasuring past division and suffering or will we wear all that a little more lightly as we move forward into a global future?
Do we prefer spending millions policing protests or getting to the bottom of communal disagreements and sorting them out.
It's usual to hear Northern Ireland's problems explained in terms of historic division, the legacy of conflict which makes us a place apart. In a sense, though, these divisions and tragedies are just the local colour. Everywhere has things like that, a special layer of difficulty laid on top of the normal struggles that face people everywhere as they attempt to get by and get ahead.
A Treasury consultation document in 2011 summed up the situation: "Northern Ireland is one of the UK's most disadvantaged regions on many measures. It has the lowest wages and one of the lowest labour productivity rates. It has a weak private sector, with strong dependence on the public sector. These weaknesses reflect a number of unique factors, not least the legacy of 30 years of conflict, the demographic structure and the peripheral location of Northern Ireland, as well as issues surrounding deprivation and rurality."
There you have it: we are a backward region with a weak economy. The best paid, and skilled, part of it is the public sector. As last year's Peace Monitoring Report, published by the Community Relations Council, points out "its dependence on the low pay/low skills equilibrium and its highest rate of economic inactivity mean that it has never been able to generate sufficient income to cover its expenditure".
Put in plain terms, November 2012 figures show us spending £23.2bn while taking in only £12.7bn in taxes. The balance, £10.5bn that year, is our subvention from London. That is nearly as much as it cost to stage the Olympics and the British are looking for a way to reduce the outflow.
Next year we face a cut of 1.6%. We also have "accumulated pressures" of around £850m and we face a major hit, £114m next year alone, for failing to implement UK-wide welfare reform measures which are intended to slow the level of increase in welfare spending here. Since we have so far refused to make the changes, London sees us as running a more expensive welfare system without having the income to pay for it and they deduct what they consider the overspend to be.
This shouldn't really be happening now. The time to have put it right was in 2007-2008 when devolution was being negotiated with SDLP and UUP as the main parties. The international conditions for devolution were far more favourable then - the Celtic Tiger was still roaring and the world economy was booming. Tony Blair was fully engaged as British Prime Minister and didn't count the cost when it came to bedding down the peace process.
President Clinton was fully committed and, like Blair, spent far more time on Northern Ireland than his successor.
That opportunity was largely missed because a deal could not be made to stick. The IRA played hard ball on decommissioning, leaving David Trimble to die a death of a thousand cuts as his support to lead the Ulster Unionists haemorrhaged away.
Sinn Fein and the DUP harried the SDLP and UUP, who lacked the resolve to proceed.
Now that things are getting out of control everybody expects Northern Ireland to sink back into violence, and with so much ethnic conflict elsewhere it is less of a special case.
People wonder what we are still arguing about after they thought everything was settled.
That is why we are so fortunate to have got the attention of the British, Irish and Americans at this moment of crisis. They even agreed to wrap a discussion of our economic problems into a talks programme on the future of the peace process, flags, parading, and the past.
This gives our politicians a chance to engage directly with the main decision takers and to trade one issue for another to try and get something that we can all live with. We shouldn't overplay our hand - but we do have a hand to play.
The three governments are very reluctant to allow the Northern Ireland peace process to move into danger. It is still the foreign policy success of the Obama Presidency and the present British Government, but it is something which both administrations inherited.
The current crop of British, Irish and American players didn't create the peace process and if they allow it to fall apart on their watch then that will reflect very badly on them. That gives us something to work with; showing a success here is of geopolitical value to Britain and America and they may yet be prepped to make concessions to do so.
Getting the most out of the situation won't be easy, especially in the poisonous atmosphere of distrust which has grown up in Stormont.
To convince the governments that Stormont is worth rescuing our politicians will need to show that they are up to the task of taking decisions. They need to show that they are prepared to put new things on the table and to slaughter sacred cows if necessary.
Above all they need to show they are capable of making compromises and delivering on them.
The record for the two big parties on that hasn't been great.
The DUP promised Sinn Fein, and the EU for that matter, that a peace centre could be constructed at the Maze, but pulled out at the last moment.
Sinn Fein has thrashed around since then, for instance blocking other projects on the Maze site.
Spats like this, which can fester and become toxic, should be sorted out.
Anything which gives the impression of instability or panic should be avoided. I recently attended a business dinner where a number of investors from outside the province discussed their holdings and their plans here.
The majority opinion was that, compared to other parts of the UK, this was a bad place to invest. These weren't stupid people, they knew the situation on the ground. They didn't think we were going back to war.
But, they pointed out, investment decisions had to be made five, 10 or more years in advance.
Northern Ireland scored badly on energy costs, which are amongst the highest in Europe. It is also a problem which we seem reluctant to tackle. Stormont will have to look at issues like fracking, onshore wind and anaerobic digesters to meet the shortfall.
Another factor alarming the group I met was the smash and grab 'Tesco tax' on big out-of-town supermarkets which Sammy Wilson, the then Finance Minister, used to raise £100m in 2011. The fear is that the same sort of "make do and mend" attitudes to filling fiscal black holes kick in again.
Businesses like to be able to plan ahead without being hit by unexpected costs and, if they have a choice, they will prefer to invest in a place where that doesn't happen.
Protests were another worry. Head offices outside Northern Ireland did not like roads suddenly being blocked or premises forced to close.
That is the area in which flags, parading and the past intersect most directly with our economic prospects. When people are considering where to invest millions, they do tend to notice little things.
Colin Powell, the former US Secretary of State, put this well. "Capital is a coward. It flees from corruption and bad policies, conflict and unpredictability. It shuns ignorance, disease and illiteracy. Capital goes where it is welcomed and where investors can be confident of a return on the resources they have put at risk. It goes to countries where women can work, children can read, and entrepreneurs can dream."
Our politicians are taking a big gamble on building up the private sector and if it is to succeed it will need high-end foreign investment to boost wage and skill levels here. This is about general image; we need to present ourselves as a reasonable, stable place that doesn't bring every problem over a local parade or a civic flag to meltdown.
We will have to make choices. The past is an issue which not only comes back to haunt us but also threatens to overturn our peace settlement and drain our law and order budget of resources.
Protests like Camp Twaddell, which the Chief Constable estimates costs £40,000 a day to police, need to be tackled and resolved in a way which can allow everyone to save face. Hiving the issue off to a special panel which can report back next year is the easiest way to deal with this problem.
That has been suggested in various forms by the Parades Commission, the Belfast Telegraph, the unionists and the Secretary of State. So far, though, nationalists have rejected the idea.
If they continue to do so they need to come up with something which unionists can live with and which will avoid flare-ups next summer. Street protests can spill into disorder, creating an air of instability and uncertainty which can damage us all.
It will be hard to find a better solution than the panel - it at least removes this toxic issue from the political talks for a while. Another matter of image, as well as money, is whether we present ourselves as united or merely "shared" society." A shared society is like one of the 10 new shared school campuses the Executive is aiming to build across Northern Ireland, starting with Lisanelly in Omagh.
These new bodies will cluster a number of schools, Catholic and Protestant and other, around shared facilities. Each school will retain its identity. It may be an advance but it falls well short of integration and it will carry religiously divided education into another generation of our young people.
The Executive really should be looking at this problem in the round but at the moment it won't - Education is a Sinn Fein department and changing its architecture could strike at the heart of the coalition.
We need to look at breaking down the "silo system" by which ministries are controlled with a good deal of autonomy by the parties who hold them. A first move would be reducing the use of the petition of concern system which allows any 30 MLAs to demand that any measure be put to a cross-community vote. This in turn means that a majority of nationalists and a majority of unionists, voting separately, must back the measure to succeed.
The petition of concern was used 10 times on an Education motion this week. The DUP, which is the only party with 30 MLAs, did it on this occasion. Sinn Fein, which has 29 MLAs, can also raise petitions with the aid of the SDLP.
An agreement to limit the use of these measures to subjects where the rights of one community really is at stake, which would be rare, would a good way to build confidence for more reforms.
While spending on both popular shared culture, like Belfast's Culture Night, and high culture, like the Ulster Orchestra, is being slashed, the Irish language and Ulster-Scots remain protected. "Pey a veesit tae the wabsteid on www.niassembly.gov.uk" if you want to find out more.
The sums aren't huge, but last year we revealed that £2,470 was spent on Ulster-Scots translations at Stormont compared with a total spend on Irish translations in excess of £1m. These translated documents are unlikely to ever be read. Yet they cost useful sums of money which could be used to support contemporary cultural activities. The money could have been used more usefully to promote Irish and Ulster-Scots culture on video or in classes for the young.
Adjusting priorities like that would help get a better attitude amongst the parties and might help restore the faith of the growing number of people who aren't voting. So would reducing the size of Stormont.
Devolution costs us about £48m a year more than direct rule and with 108 MLAs (108 LMFs if you prefer the Ulster Scots) we could afford to downsize.
In Westminster an MP is paid £65,738 and here an MLA gets £43,101, just 65.6% of the Westminster total. However, when you look at how much they are paid per constituent the picture changes - an MP gets 65p for each person he or she represents but an MLA gets £2.64, more than four times as much.
Compared to an MLA's £2.64, an MSP in Scotland is paid only £1.44 per constituent. In Wales an AM gets £53,852 which works out at £1.08 per head in the constituency. The size of the administration comes from the peace negotiations when Tony Blair was more or less prepared to pay any cost to get politicians over the line. That meant creating enough seats and enough ministries to ensure everyone had a job.
David Cameron may not be quite so accommodating this time, but we have got the attention of the governments and they don't want us to fail. That gives us some leverage but not a free run. Over the coming months of negotiation the politicians have got to show that they mean business, that they can deliver on any undertaking they give and that they are capable of compromise.
To get agreement they may need a lot of pushing and shoving from the governments - that is why the governments are here. If they fail to agree, then we may also be looking at the end of devolution and a place that looks more unstable. The governments are also here to manage things then - if the wheels come off the cart that is.
Governance: Flabby Assembly in need of cutting down to size, writes Noel McAdam
Stormont's new draft budget has one area where the proposed spending cut is zero - the Assembly.
The proposals give the baseline cost of our 108 MLAs as £40.7m - and suggest it should stay at that.
Officials have said there is a political convention that the Executive is not permitted to interfere with the finances and organisation of the legislature. In theory, ministers are the servants of the Assembly.
Thus it will be the Assembly Commission, responsible for the day-to-day running of Parliament Buildings, and the Assembly and Executive Review Committee which come forward with proposals on savings to the public purse - though the latter has failed to achieve any consensus so far.
If the on-going multi-party talks reach a deal, however, there are indications the two main parties, DUP and Sinn Fein, could slim the 108-Member Assembly down to 90 - one fewer MLA per constituency.
There has also been speculation the present Government departments could be merged into seven or eight, although how much might be saved is disputed and it is likely to be a project for the Assembly elected in 2016. Even at 90 members, however, Northern Ireland would remain far ahead of the Welsh Assembly, which has 60 members even though Wales is about twice the size of NI.
Only the SDLP MLAs, and one Ulster Unionist, Michael Copeland, refused the £5,000 a year pay increase last year, although Members lost out on office cost allowances. MPs get 65p for each person they represent while it is £2.64 for an MLA, more than four times as much. In Scotland an MSP gets £1.44 per constituent and in Wales an Assembly Member gets £1.08. Sinn Fein says its representatives are only allowed to take about £21,000 of their salaries, the rest going into party coffers.
Economy: Balance between public and private sectors is off-kilter, writes Margaret Canning
Economic recovery has been painfully slow in Northern Ireland and we have a lot of catching up to do to recapture the highs of 2007.
On the plus side, nearly half of the jobs lost during the downturn have now been recouped.
We now have an unemployment rate of 6.1%. That's down 1.2% over the year, and the lowest since 2009.
That rate is likely to go up because there could be as many as 12,000 public sector redundancies to help Stormont balance its books - and with around 27.2% of our workforce in public sector jobs, that will have a massive impact.
It throws into relief the need for Northern Ireland to rebalance its economy - the 27% rate of people here in public sector jobs compares to 18% in the UK as a whole.
High public spending by Gordon Brown in the 2000s pushed up public sector employment - and for decades Northern Ireland has been able to play on its status as a land scarred by conflict to avail of indulgence from Westminster.
But no more. Instead, companies here need to be nimble and lean to pick up the slack created by public sector job losses.
But a survey has reported that Northern Ireland has the lowest number in the UK of high-growth small businesses that are powering the economic recovery elsewhere.
The recession has had a deeper impact here, but companies are doing their best.
However, surveys next week are expected to show a slowdown in recovery, as wobbles in the eurozone and in GB manufacturing rub off on us.
There's a sense in the business world that political parties in Stormont just aren't helping and the welfare reform logjam and budget delays are making a bad situation worse
Health: Top-heavy in admin staff with spending spiralling upwards, writes Victoria O'Hara
The health service faces the massive challenge of growing demand from the public while at the same time needing to make massive savings.
Despite being ringfenced, health chiefs face having to make savings of £170m. About 74,000 people work in the health service and 70% of the budget is spent on salaries. There are five health trusts serving 1.8 million people. This has led to the health service coming under fire for having a 'bloated' administration. It spends per head of population £1,975 - £75 more per person than England. Northern Ireland also has 42% more non-clinical staff - including senior managers and administrators - than England, proportionate to our population. But the province has fewer clinical staff, such as nurses and midwives, than Scotland and Wales relative to population. We had 1,003 per 100,000 people, more than England's 846 per 100,000. However, in 2009 we were lagging behind Scotland (1,124 per 100,000) and Wales (1,052 per 100,000).
In August, figures showed almost 500 nursing, midwifery and health visitor posts are to be filled and 114 consultant posts were unfilled. Spending on agency or 'bank' staff is also expected to top £70m this year, having soared by 60% in four years. Finance Minister Simon Hamilton has said that, in part, there had been "poor budget management" by managers. Health Minister Jim Wells said £170m of savings were required for 2014/15, which has led to the trusts having to implement cuts involving the temporary closure of Minor Injury Units in Armagh, Whiteabbey and Bangor. There will also be temporary bed closures of 27 intermediate care/rehabilitation beds. Waiting lists are growing for A&E treatment, outpatient services, referrals and surgeries. Recent figures revealed the number of patients waiting 12 hours for emergency care jumped by 550% in three months.
Education: A system insisting on two of everything in a time of cuts, writes Rebecca Black
It is more than 15 years since the Good Friday Agreement, which established a statutory obligation to educate our children together.
Instead of one school system, everything is still duplicated with 93% of children being educated in either maintained Catholic schools or controlled schools which are mostly attended by Protestants.
The cost has been estimated at up to £80m a year. Just 7% (21,000) children are educated in officially integrated schools. Most children still sit transfer tests at 11, despite the official test being stopped in 2008. The segregation even extends to transfer tests. If an 11-year-old child wants to keep his or her options open they must sit five tests via GL and AQE to stand a chance of getting into a maintained or a controlled school. A plan to streamline the five education and library boards was mooted in 2002 under the Review of Public Administration. It took five years for the Education Skills Authority (ESA) to be announced in 2007. But after a further seven years ESA was put into cold storage earlier this year over a lack of agreement. A watered-down version in the Education Bill 2014 is being rushed through Stormont to meet a deadline of next April. Yesterday the Education and Training Inspectorate revealed four in 10 pupils leave our schools without at least five good GCSEs, concluding our education system is not world class. In terms of further and higher education, the crisis widens with Queen's University and University of Ulster confirming they will accept over a thousand fewer students next September. The move means 1,100 of our brightest young people are likely to join the 35% who already leave Northern Ireland to attend universities in England, Scotland and Wales. Our six further education colleges also face cuts after the Department for Employment and Learning was told it will face an 11% budget slash.
The past: Too few officers, too little money to tackle cold cases, writes Chris Kilpatrick
Northern Ireland's past and the cost of investigating legacy issues remain highly contentious.
Historical police investigations, inquests and inquiries are all under the spotlight.
The past formed a substantial part of the Haass talks and continues to prove politically divisive.
The huge slashing of the PSNI's annual budget will, according to the Chief Constable, "effectively mean the closure" of the Historical Enquiries Team that investigates Troubles-era killings.
The majority of police investigating the shooting dead of 13 civil rights protesters by soldiers on Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972 are to be laid off.
Police have also been unable to give assurances about the future of Operation Redfield.
It was set up to examine the way the PSNI handled on-the-run suspects in the wake of the collapse of John Downey's trial for alleged involvement in the 1982 Hyde Park bombing.
The PSNI is reviewing its initial assessment of all 228 individuals to see if other errors were made or if fresh evidence has emerged.
Earlier this year, the PSNI had hoped that 30 detectives would spend two to three years reviewing the intelligence and evidence existing against the group who received the so-called on-the-runs letters.
However, this week newly-promoted PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris told the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that 17 officers were investigating 28 cases. The Criminal Justice Inspectorate previously said policing the past will cost criminal justice agencies in Northern Ireland almost £190m in the next five years.There was controversy last November when Attorney General John Larkin said there should be no further police investigations, inquests or inquiries into killings before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Local government: Fewer councils, but will there be any real savings?, writes Noel McAdam
The massive shake-up in local government across Northern Ireland will not save a single penny from the public purse in the short-term.
But the upheaval in squeezing the 26 councils into 11 is designed to achieve significant savings for taxpayers over the next quarter-century.
The number of councillors is down - from 582 to 420 - but their allowances have doubled.
The costs of running the two systems in parallel during the year following the May elections - the 26 remain in charge, while the 11 have begun to hold their own meetings - will be higher than the usual annual bill. There have also long been fears that ratepayers will end up picking up at least some of the tab for the transfer of functions including planning, regeneration and off-street parking.
Five years ago, an economic appraisal by consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers concluded that implementation of the council reforms would involve expenditure of £118m over five years, though achieving savings of £438m over the next 25 years - a net gain for stretched taxpayers of £320m.
That is the basis on which the choice between seven, 15 or, as it has turned out, 11 merged councils proceeded.
Subsequent work, however, including an initiative by the councils themselves called ICE (Improvement, Collaboration and Efficiency) appear to have reduced the upfront costs estimate to an upper level of £80.8m during the transition period.
It's work culminated in a 'Case for Change' report which projected increased savings in the region of £570m based on less upfront investment but over the same timescale.
But each of the councils is being asked to conduct their own enquiries into future costs and service delivery as soon as possible.
Policing: A force fighting cutbacks and legal aid out of control, writes Chris Kilpatrick
Police chiefs currently face the mammoth task of earmarking which services to axe in the wake of savage cuts to the budget.
Chief Constable George Hamilton painted a dire financial picture when he outlined the impact the cuts would have on his force, warning the PSNI would become unrecognisable as a result.
Mr Hamilton said sweeping changes would "fundamentally change how policing is delivered".
He said front line policing would be forced to change as a result of the funding crisis - which amount to savings by march of more £51.4m - effectively transforming the force into a "blue light" service.
Following the outcome of October monitoring, the Department of Justice confirmed additional funding of £13m to help offset the pressures.
Already announced is the loss of 300 temporary jobs and neighbourhood policing effectively scrapped.
The current recruitment process for officers will be "substantially slower", while the brakes have been put on a further intake of staff.
Around £3m has been spent policing one east Belfast interface alone in the past three years.
Mr Hamilton said it was no longer affordable to operate a force of its current size, almost 7,000.
Legal aid remains among the highest in the world per head of population. It pays out in criminal and civil court proceedings an estimated £100m a year.
In 2012/13 the cost per head here was around £56, while in England and Wales it was less than £36.
Crucial checks on criminals in the community have been scaled back because of cash cuts.
Managers at the Probation Board have been forced to lay off staff. Courthouses may have to close temporarily and prisoners are set to spend longer in their cells.
Infrastructure: Lights go out, roads upkeep is reduced, projects put on ice, writes Linda Stewart
Around 14,500 street lights across Northern Ireland are now out of order, according to the Department for Regional Development.
Cost-saving measures have meant the suspension of the use of external contractors who helped to maintain street lights, so priority is given to lights that present an electrical or structural risk to the public.
The department also says it only has resources to complete around three-quarters of the work needed to keep the wider road network in as safe a condition as possible.
Meanwhile, there are warnings that we face the real risk of the lights going out if the north-south interconnector isn't progressed. Risk to security of supply becomes even higher in 2021 when further restrictions come into play at Kilroot.
Major Government projects such as Desertcreat Training College and the Maze site are either on hold or withdrawn. On the positive side, Omagh Hospital is now on site, and projects at the University of Ulster, the Waterfront extension, Ulster Hospital and Titanic Quarter film studios are under way.
Roads schemes such as the A26, A31 and A6 are in motion, while Belfast Rapid Transit is on site and the York Street interchange will be on site in 2018/9.
However, more than £70m has now been spent on the A5 dualling scheme without road building.
Although Belfast Bike Hire begins construction shortly, progress on cycling infrastructure has been slow and cycling safety is a major concern.
Total volume of construction output in the second quarter of 2014 fell by 6% compared to the previous year and road maintenance on B and C roads is inadequate, sparking fears of a skills migration in construction workers to Britain.
Arts: Curtain comes down on culture as funding dries up, writes Amanda Ferguson
It's the toughest time ever for the arts in Northern Ireland.
The Ulster Orchestra is facing closure if emergency funding cannot be secured and showpiece events in Belfast's cultural calendar are under threat too.
The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure's baseline funding figure for 2015-16 is £99.9m but the draft budget proposal reveals a reduction of 10%.
A DCAL spokesman told the Belfast Telegraph it is writing to the chief executives of the following agencies to ask how they would deliver cuts and of the potential impact on services: Arts Council, Armagh Observatory, Armagh Planetarium, Libraries NI, National Museums NI, the NI Museums Council, Northern Ireland Screen, and Sport NI.
The information provided by these groups will be carefully considered before final decisions on allocations are made.
The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment budget cuts will also impact the arts.
Last month Arlene Foster announced the Tourism Events Fund will not go ahead next year.
Organisers of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival and the Out to Lunch Festival are coming to terms with a £45,000 shortfall, throwing next year's events in jeopardy.
Meanwhile, the Ulster Orchestra has asked Belfast City Council for £500,000 to cover a deficit of £400,000 for 2014/15 after a funding cut.
DCAL Minister Caral ni Chuilin has said it's not her job to "drum up" cash for the orchestra and confirmed that without a viable rescue package of proposals by December 15, it will be in "serious difficulties".
But the minister has pledged to continue her fight "to ensure that we continue to give the arts the investment it deserves".
Political alienation: Fewer voting among an electorate that feels powerless, writes Noel McAdam
The number of people voting is falling steadily and there is palpable cynicism about politicians, perks and pay.
Just over half the Northern Ireland electorate bothered to vote in the elections in May for the 11 new councils. Of the total registered electorate of 1,243,649, a total of 638,332 turned out at polling stations - a percentage of 51.33%.
Fewer had registered for the European election, on the same day, May 22 (1,226,771) and slightly fewer voted (635, 927) giving a slightly higher percentage of 51.84%, according to the Electoral Office statistics.
The totals are hardly higher for the main Assembly elections. Turnout in last Assembly poll in 2011 was 54.5%, down by almost 8% from the previous election and a decline of 15% from the first Assembly race following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
The falling vote phenomenon points to increased disaffection. In an almost mirror image, the 2014 Life and Times Survey in NI showed 53% of Protestants and 43 % of Catholics saying they felt a sense of belonging to the province.
But the report 'Belonging and Alienation in the New Northern Ireland' also showed adults from Catholic backgrounds (64%) more likely than Protestants (54%) to say they felt a sense of belonging to their more immediate neighbourhoods.
Anomie is worse among the young -16-year-olds were least likely of all age groups to voice a sense of belonging (24%). 42% of respondents with no religious background said they had definitely no influence on any decision-making.
For Catholic and Protestants, the results were 35% and 32%.
Only 2% of 16-year olds felt they definitely had an influence on decision-making in Northern Ireland, while 50% felt they definitely had no influence.
Environment: Illegal dumping is rife as land faces a host of pressures, writes Linda Stewart
The largest environmental disaster to hit the headlines in the past few years was the discovery of Europe's biggest illegal landfill dump at Mobuoy near Londonderry.
Not only will it cost an estimated £100m to clean up the 500 tonnes of waste buried in former quarries on the site, but the investigation has revealed that taxpayers face the bill for cleaning up another 37 'priority' illegal dumps in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, 60% of quarrying operations are applying retrospectively for planning approval.
The latest waste figures reveal that the amount of domestic rubbish sent for recycling (over 42%) outstripped the amount sent for landfill for the first time, but at least some of that recycled material is being exported or finding its way to these illegal dumps. The carrier bag levy resulted in an 80% reduction in demand of single use bags in the first year but is now starting to plateau out. Northern Ireland is in line to meet the 2020 EU targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions but not the 2025 ones. It remains the only part of the UK not to have a climate bill that sets legally binding greenhouse gas reduction targets. Northern Ireland is falling short of meeting its EU obligations to improve freshwater quality - 59% of freshwater habitat is supposed to be of good environmental quality by 2016 but the figure is less than 30%. The approval rate for planning applications has reached 96% and in some council areas it is 100%. Meanwhile, only one out of 49 Special Areas of Conservation habitat types is in favourable condition and the RSPB has predicted a number of farmland bird species are expected to go extinct within a decade. Nearly 20% of our electrical demand is now generated from renewable energy, setting us in line to meet next year's Programme for Government target.
Equality: A hefty price tag to ensure everyone has same rights, writes Noel McAdam
The cost of equality - a cornerstone of the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements - does not come cheap.
The Equality Commission itself has cost almost £100m (£98.78m) since it was established in 1999, although annual costs have remained static at between £6-7m since 2001.
Almost all of the government departments here have 'equality units' which came in at a total annual cost of £26.85m. Between the departments the costs, for 2012, ranged from £817,979.25 to £845,508.75. They were supplied to the TUV leader Jim Allister. Most of the units only have a handful of staff and many of them also perform other functions. For example, in John O'Dowd's Department of Education, there are three officers costing a total of £105,453 but also working on European and North-South issues.
The Department of Justice, on the other hand, does not have an equality unit.
Now the Equality Commission is being subsumed along with the Community Relations Council into a new body as part of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness' strategy called Building a United Community.
A shared future could save money. Two main separate education systems with some 85,000 empty desks and the duplication of services in housing, leisure centres, community centres because of sectarianism, are all drains on the public purse.
There are hidden costs, too, in planning for divided communities, and even a knock-on effect in terms of the province's carbon footprint with people having to travel further to work.
The issue even came down to equal pay in the public sector where 15,120 civil servants received payments under the Equal Pay Settlement at a total cost of more than £127.8m.