Stormont must fight to end poverty
Belfast City Hall may have an unenviable reputation at times as the crucible where the flames of the flags protest were first lit or as the bear-pit of local politics, but yesterday it was the setting for a hugely important – and disturbing – conference. Poverty is not just a Third World issue, but something that is very prevalent in Northern Ireland.
It is shocking that in a mature democratic region of the UK, some 250,000 meals are being distributed every year to people who would otherwise go hungry and that 11 food banks are operating in the province.
Issues like flags, sectarianism or even Ian Paisley's intemperate attack on former political and religious colleagues may dog the headlines. They are important in their own right as indicators of how our society works and behaves, but poverty is a much more intractable problem which impacts on so many people every waking hour of their day.
There were heartrending stories of what poverty means – hiding behind the sofa when collectors call for bills to be paid, falling behind in utility payments, living hand to mouth. These are not characters out of Shameless or Benefit Street, but people who simply cannot make ends meet. They do not deserve to be demonised and yesterday's conference held up a light to their plight which should spur us all to consider how we can help.
What we really need here are strong economic policies and incentives to investors to set up in the province so that we can create more jobs at all levels, offering people the opportunity to aspire to a better life. For those who believe that people living on benefits have a cushy life, the stories related in the City Hall should make them think again.
Such is the range of related problems – poor educational attainment, lack of skills, few job vacancies – there is no easy fix to the issue of poverty. We can relieve some of the symptoms for the worst off, but it will take determined efforts across the Executive to start eradicating the root of the problem.