Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Future of Northern Ireland: What is Going Wrong?
The Future of Northern Ireland: What is Going Wrong?

The Future of Northern Ireland: What is Going Wrong?

Earlier in the summer, I wrote about how the results of the UK general election reflected upon the politics of religion and how these factors could impinge upon the future of Northern Ireland. Theresa May’s election gamble had proved to be a major miscalculation. With a diminished majority, the prime minister was forced to make a highly controversial agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to allow her minority government to function, gaining a knife-edge of a majority in exchange for £1bn in subsidies to Northern Ireland. The protracted discussions leading up to this agreement reflected the almost permanent irresolution of the politics of the province, as well as its politicians’ preference for bargaining and barter. Lacking information about the content of the talks, British media coverage focused on those elements of social policy in the DUP manifesto that they found toxic in comparison with the rather recently identified “British values” of pluralism and toleration. But this criticism may have been missing the mark. The bigger issue is less cultural than socioeconomic. Twenty years after the end of the “Troubles,” and with a long history of power-sharing in the devolved government at Stormont, the border issue continues to dominate the Northern Irish political agenda. Despite massive additional subsidies, and with no devolved government since January, the “peace dividend” is seriously in arrears.

There are signs that Northern Ireland is becoming a more peaceful and prosperous region. Belfast and Derry, the largest cities in the province, have been centres for massive investment, which has achieved some significant success. In 2013, Derry was made the UK City of Culture and, in 2016, Belfast’s Titanic museum, developed on a budget of £77m, was named as the best tourist destination in the world. Capitalizing on this investment, Belfast City Council and the Derry & Strabane Council are working together on a bid to become the European Capital of Culture 2023—a bid that could cost up to £1m. The creative industries are booming, and Game of Thrones, which (thanks to generous tax breaks) is filmed in the province, is reckoned to have contributed around £150m to the local economy between 2010 and 2016.

As these tax breaks suggest, the province has benefitted from significant public investment. Households in the province avoid taxation that is normative in the rest of the UK: despite their other differences, for example, Sinn Fein and the DUP have successfully worked together to prevent the introduction of domestic water charges. Whatever their other differences, politicians in the province agree that additional funding must always be externally sourced. As a consequence, Northern Ireland is the most subsidised region of the UK. It has the highest public spend per person within the UK, with last year’s spending per head of £14,020 far in excess of the £8,580 raised in tax revenue. The agreement for £1bn of investment puts the province even further in debt to the UK taxpayer. Northern Ireland’s problems are not caused by a lack of public money.

But this additional funding has not stopped the “peace dividend” falling into arrears. The province has serious economic and social problems. The disposable income of Northern Ireland households is only half the UK average. The average house price is just over half that of the UK. The children of many of these households are experiencing some of the UK’s highest rates of child poverty and enduring some of the worst child health in western Europe. Hospital patients wait for up to five years for procedures that elsewhere in the UK are completed within weeks. The province reports increasing rates of inequality and educational underachievement, especially for working-class Protestant boys. Many of the children of these households are excluded from university access. Recent statistics report that many more girls than boys, and many more Catholics than Protestants, enter higher education, even as the devolved administration is actively divesting in the sector: between 2009 and 2015, the Department for Employment and Learning grant to Northern Ireland universities was reduced by 24% in real terms, a cut that has been reflected in a reduction of over 2,000 undergraduate places for local students. Meanwhile, around 35% of young people leave Northern Ireland to pursue higher education elsewhere—and few of them return. While unemployment is declining, the government report, Building our Industrial Strategy (2017), suggested that Northern Ireland lags far behind the rest of the UK in terms of productivity rates and investment in research and development. Too many of the young people of the province are locked out of opportunity. And too many of them are also locked out of hope: Northern Ireland has recorded a rapid increase in the rate of suicides, which is now the highest in the UK, with residents of deprived areas being three times more likely than others to take their own lives. Massive public subventions cannot disguise the fact that Northern Ireland is a failing state.

These tragic statistics raise several questions. What does the province’s additional income achieve? How is it possible that the most heavily subsidised region of the UK can so dramatically fail its children and young people? And how can the Scottish government— which offers free university education, among other perks—achieve so much more with less?

These questions might be linked to another: can the province escape its tradition of sectarian politics? The drive towards politics as sectarian headcount seems irresistible. Northern Ireland has been without a devolved administration since the collapse of the DUP-Sinn Fein power-sharing government in January. The local election that followed on March 2, 2017, which witnessed a swing to Sinn Fein of 3.9%, provided results that horrified many unionists: the DUP beat Sinn Fein by only one seat and little more than one thousand votes in a result that was widely heralded as representing the end of the unionist majority. DUP and Sinn Fein negotiators failed to agree upon the terms of a new administration within the three weeks allowed for the sustention of devolved government. And so deadlines began to be extended—without the brokering of any kind of deal. Perhaps the unionists were playing for time. When it came, on June 8, 2017, the general election provided them with an opportunity to put things right. Just as Sinn Fein had consolidated its position among nationalists in the local election, so, too, did the DUP consolidate its position among unionists in the general election. The DUP benefitted with a swing of over 10% to win a record share of the vote and, it turned out, the balance of power in Westminster, where the swell of support for Sinn Fein, which continues its policy of abstention from the House of Commons, has left nationalists without any representation. The disparity at Westminster between the outsized influence of the DUP and the absence of Sinn Fein might suggest that local political fora will continue to provide the best venues for debating local aspirations. But in the absence of a devolved administration at Stormont, what can local politicians hope to achieve?  

Not everything is going wrong, of course. Ballymena, in the heart of the province’s Bible belt, is listed among the happiest towns in the United Kingdom. It’s hard to know how to interpret this kind of anecdotal evidence. Maybe the unusually religious people of Ballymena have such low expectations of life that they are more easily satisfied. Or maybe they have realised a fact that evades their political leaders: that “man does not live by bread alone,” and Northern Ireland’s existential crisis cannot be solved by ever-increasing funding. But that observation is unlikely to dampen local enthusiasm about Northern Ireland’s billion-pound subvention—even if it does nothing to stop all that is going wrong in Northern Ireland.