OPINION: Dismantling Northern Ireland segregation could help balance the books
by Seymore HOPE
12 May 2023
I found parts of the Secretary of State’s budget statement on Thursday, 27 April, quite interesting. In it, he said: “The Northern Ireland Budget per person is around 20% higher than equivalent UK Government spending in other parts of the UK. Yet, the level of public services offered are still not affordable and outcomes are not improving.”
While on the surface the comments sounded critical, I would not seek to interpret them. However, there are a few assumptions that I have made:
- The “level of public services offered” in Northern Ireland needs to be taken in the context of a society that is still dealing with the effects of the conflict that happened here;
- Government is responsible for ensuring affordability;
- However, within this, we also need to acknowledge that we are still servicing a divided society through duplication, which aids continued separation and potentially stifles the building of a more shared and cohesive society.
Being a post-conflict society is what distinguishes Northern Ireland from other parts of the UK and Ireland. I assume that when people talk of Northern Ireland as having “unique circumstances”, this is part of what they mean. The impact of the conflict places our society at a distinct disadvantage. To get to a position where our region is on par with other parts of these islands, there is no doubt that our society needs additional support and investment. The affordability of “the level of public services offered” needs to reflect this reality and it is the responsibility of the Government to provide this. One could call it “levelling-up”.
It is therefore totally right that dealing with the legacies of the conflict in areas such as health, policing, community, and economic activity are given adequate support. But in other areas of public service delivery, we are spending much more than perhaps we need to. This is partly because of how services were historically developed during the period of conflict. Our school system, public housing, transport, road network, leisure, and governance have effectively been designed to facilitate separation. In many cases, this was done to ensure that people could access services in a way that they could feel safe in doing so.
However, after 25 years of relative peace, the question must be: can we afford to keep doing this and is this good for our future as a society?
A 2016 report by the University of Ulster highlighted some of the costs associated with the delivery of public services and gave comparisons with other regions.
The report benchmarked the costs associated with the delivery of public services in Northern Ireland compared with other regions. In its conclusions, it said:
“This benchmarking analysis identifies a cost range of approximately £400 million to £830 million per annum, which at least in part is potentially caused by the need to provide services in a divided society.
“The most significant cost area is linked to policing and justice, accounting for over half the estimated additional cost.
“This benchmarking analysis identifies areas where division is potentially contributing to a higher cost of service delivery, BUT it is only one of many factors.”
A few areas that the report highlighted were (figures per annum):
- We spend at least £297m more on policing in Northern Ireland than the comparable region of Merseyside. We spend around £40m more on prisons than in England and Wales, and about £11m on projects such as home protection service, compensation, the Parades Commission, maintaining peace walls, and others.
- We spend £10.3m on dealing with conflict-related PTSD, with mental health admissions costing around £25m.
- A section on lost economic opportunity as a result of conflict and division highlights that because our economic performance is not equivalent to comparable UK regions, we are underperforming in Gross Value Added (GVA) per capita, jobs, skills, tourism, and business start-ups.
- Services for religious and community activities come in at around £22 per person in Northern Ireland, compared with £3 per person in Scotland (the next highest in the UK).
It is not difficult to see why all of these costs are essential in a society that has endured decades of conflict, division, and its effects. And these services are essential for the functioning of the society that we have emerged with.
The report, however, also details a number of other areas of public service delivery that are delivered in duplication. These services, if transformed, could actually assist in the building of good community relations and, over time, lessen the need for those costs above to continue to be required at such levels.
For example, if we look at these other areas in the report, there is potential for transformation (figures per annum):
- Consolidating school and teacher training provision into a singular delivery model could save upwards of £17m;
- The transformation of interface areas could save around £2.5m by reducing the lost rental income from “difficult to let” properties, the purchase of evacuated dwellings, and interventions to improve such areas;
- A more settled society could assist the transport system to reduce costs associated with the provision of additional CCTV on transport, reductions in damage to busses due to civil unrest, security alerts on the rail network, and bus substitution services, which cost around £0.6m per year;
- A reduction in the per capita amount spent on sports and leisure in Northern Ireland, which is the highest in the UK, at around £130 per person, compared with Wales’s £72 — this is a result of duplication, which was been necessitated as a result of division, but which now could be a tremendous vehicle for promoting cohesion and integration;
- A reduction in representation to the levels that exist in Scotland (MLAs per % of the population) could save £6.6m per year.
The costs associated with areas such as justice, health, community, and economic initiatives are essential and right in our post-conflict situation. There is a unique need for these costs, compared with other parts of these islands, and they should not be subject to “affordability” concerns.
However, there is still the maintenance of a binary approach to the delivery of some other services such as education, housing, transport, governance, and sport and leisure.
If we are to tackle the financial and budgetary pressures that we currently face, maybe our society could start to have a conversation about dismantling segregation and separation as part of that task.
Image by Dymsimages used by license.