Steven McCaffery examines inequality in Northern Ireland
Fifteen years after the Good Friday Agreement, figures show that Catholics continue to experience wider levels of deprivation than Protestants.
But unionist politicians have said the areas they represent often face specific needs that should be considered.
The Community Relations Council’s annual ‘Peace Monitoring Report’ reviews statistics on life in Northern Ireland and examines poverty levels among Catholics and Protestants.
Referring to research on the ability of households to meet certain basic costs, the report noted that: “On every single measure on the deprivation indices Catholic families experience more deprivation than Protestants.”
And in the debate over how best to use the £80 million Social Investment Fund (SIF), the statistics in the report confirm deprivation occurs on both sides of the community, and go some way to illustrating the arguments often made by nationalists and unionists on such issues.
The DUP has previously cited the specific needs of deprived unionist communities, but data providing an overview of Northern Ireland as a whole makes it clear that nationalist communities continue to suffer greater levels of poverty.
The Detail reports on the suggestion that the DUP and Sinn Féin are split on whether or not the SIF cash should be distributed on the basis of objective need – which should see more support being directed to nationalist communities.
But political wrangle and bureaucratic delays that have prevented any of the money being released is affecting community groups in hard-pressed areas around Northern Ireland.
The Peace Monitoring report, which was released earlier this year, also charts political developments during the peace process.
It said: “The data on poverty suggest that, 15 years after the Belfast Agreement held out the hope of equality between Protestants and Catholics, major differentials still exist, with Catholics experiencing much higher material deprivation than Protestants.”
Official data from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) shows that 16 of the most deprived wards in Northern Ireland are Catholic, while only six of the least deprived wards are Catholic.
But the report notes signs of upward mobility among Catholic middle classes.
There is also data on unionist areas that are suffering deprivation, as well as information on poor educational outcomes experienced by many working class Protestant boys.
The report contrasts the experience of a high performing category of school pupil, against one of the lower performing categories, and reveals that “at one end of the attainment gap the success rate for Catholic girls not on free school meals at A Level (grades A*-E) is 66.2%, while at this same level the success rate for Protestant boys on free school meals is 13.4%”.
Experienced sources within the community sector have also said that there have been examples in the past of funds being allocated to meet the particular needs of deprived Protestant communities, or which supplied support to help such communities develop the infrastructure to apply for grant aid.
But other information points to the wider disparity between the communities:
22% of Catholics live in households experiencing poverty, compared to 17% of Protestants.
On youth unemployment, 15% of Protestants in the 18-24 year-old age group are unemployed but for Catholics in the same category the figure is 20%.
The decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall in December 2012 sparked street protests and riots.
And the Peace Monitoring report noted the claims that deprivation in east Belfast was a factor that saw the area become a focus for discontent.
The report said: “Yet the official Assembly constituency profiles for east Belfast and its predominantly-Catholic counterpart of west Belfast show that the latter is significantly more disadvantaged.
“The life expectancy of a man in west Belfast is three years less (75.5 versus 72.5) and the proportion of children in poverty (42.7) is virtually double that of east Belfast.
“Investment by Invest NI in east Belfast in 2011-12 was £13.3 million, as against £4.2 million for west Belfast.
“And this does not include the following recent projects there: the Titanic Centre (£75 million), the new Belfast Metropolitan College Campus (£44 million) and the new Public Records Office (£30 million).
“These have been situated in Titanic Quarter, a major development on the old extended shipyard estate.”
It is clear, nevertheless that there are major issues of deprivation in many unionist areas.
While this may affect niche issues such as education, unionist representatives have in the past also claimed that pockets of disadvantage exist in otherwise affluent areas, such as the Village and Sandy Row communities of south Belfast.
This article first appeared in The Detail www.thedetail.tv