One hundred years to the day after its foundation on 3 May 1921 Northern Ireland, on paper at least, is outdoing the rest of the United Kingdom on many metrics.
The UK’s smallest country has seen the lowest unemployment rate on the British Isles for six consecutive quarters, reaching a record low in late 2019; pre-Covid tourism was booming ; and it has the highest levels of wellbeing in the OECD.
It is the only region of the UK where the proportion of people in persistent low income (after housing costs) is below 10% of the population while the absolute number of children living in poverty has fallen in the past five years, in contrast with the UK-wide figure.
However, Northern Ireland has most recently made the headlines for what many had hoped were the long-gone reasons.
The riots that broke out in the capital Belfast in late March and early April were variously attributed to unionist discontent with Brexit (specifically the Northern Irish protocol) and the decision not to prosecute 24 Sinn Féin politicians for alleged breaches of Covid-19 rules at the funeral of a former IRA member.
But there were also those who warned that part of the violence was borne out of a frustration that working class areas of Northern Ireland have been left behind.
On the face of it Northern Ireland ranks mid table when compared with the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland in terms of NEETs – those not in employment, education or training.
However, take a microscope to the region and the cracks in the country’s education system begin to appear. A 2016 report into gaps in education attainment in the region found that the gap in the lowest and highest skilled was higher than any OECD country.
Either side of the Shankill Road/Springfield Road peace wall in west Belfast educational achievement remains low: around two thirds of pupils living in one part of the Falls Road did not attain five GCSEs or an equivalent qualification, rising to 70% in part of the Shankill according to the region’s last deprivation report.
Of the province’s 50 worst areas in terms of educational deprivation, 37 are in Belfast with NEETs running between 10% and 17% among late teens in some parts of the city.
The problem – which is most acute among working class boys – is not a new one. And this attainment gap is felt more keenly in unionist communities. A 2018 report by the Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report echoed two decades of findings when it stated “Protestant boys continue to have lower educational attainment than Catholic boys”.
Feeding into this division is continued segregation in Northern Ireland’s education system: controlled (predominantly Protestant), Catholic maintained and integrated schools. A report published earlier this year found that “balancing the demands of these denominational, cultural and national vested interests” had created a “divided, splintered and consequently overly expensive” school system.
Richard Johnston of the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre says: “Other countries are overtaking Northern Ireland in terms of educational outcomes and spending less on a per capita or per pupil basis and therefore [it] must examine the efficiency of the current education system”.
While child poverty levels in Northern Ireland as a whole are on par with the wider UK, the proportion of children living in low income families remains high in parts of the region.
Eight of the nation’s 18 parliamentary constituencies rank in the bottom third of the wider UK according to recently published government figures.
At least one-in-five children living in those areas were in relative poverty in 2019 rising to more than a quarter (26%) in Belfast West – home to the Lanark Way and Springfield Road interface where some of the recent violence broke out – as well as the Belfast North and Foyle constituencies.
Indicative ward-level data being prepared by the House of Commons Library shows that more than a third of children in some parts of the country are in poverty.
The chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Les Allamby, said child poverty was a severe problem in Northern Ireland where families are bigger on average meaning that the limit on universal credit to two children is acutely felt.
“Six years ago the high court ruled that the NI Executive’s failure to adopt an anti-poverty strategy was unlawful, yet six years on this has not been remedied. The lack of a future for some young people means they remain fertile ground for recruitment by loyalist and dissident republican paramilitaries,” he said.
It may be counterintuitive to some but while Northern Ireland has the lowest unemployment rate in the UK, it also has the lowest or second-lowest employment rate for the past four quarters (in quarter 4 2020 it stood at 69.4% in Northern Ireland compared with 75.1% in the rest of the UK).
The region has relatively low levels of capital investment and innovation; limited amounts of home-grown startups; higher levels of public sector employment and a less well qualified workforce than neighbouring countries. Combined, these factors lead to lower competitiveness and employment.
Another is that Northern Ireland has persistently had the highest rate of economically inactive people – a group that encompasses homemakers, full-time carers, the long-term sick or disabled, students and retirees – in the UK.
“Prior to the Covid crisis, Northern Ireland set a number of economic records – employment, output, unemployment, export and more. However, whilst the region’s performance appeared strong when considered against its own historical context, it remains weaker than competitor nations and regions across the UK, Ireland and Europe,” Johnston says.
Additional reporting by Sam Cutler