The Stephen Livingstone lecture: on inequality and poverty

Continuing the review (link to the complete series) of Martin O'Brien's speech on 'Human rights and the Agreement: how far have we come?', the 2009 Stephen Livingstone memorial lecture.

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O'Brien moves on to discuss the continuing inequality and socio-economic disadvantage in Northern Ireland – this despite a fifteen-year boom since about the time of the paramilitary ceasefires.

The period (at least until very recently) has brought inward investment, increased employment, rising property prices, new concert halls and shopping centres – yet high rates of poverty (especially child poverty) and economic inequality persist and may be worsening, yet not everyone acknowledges that there is a problem:

"The starting point for any effort to tackle inequality is to acknowledge that there is a problem. 

To be serious about tackling inequality then you need to start with the facts. 

Inequalities are growing in our society and the gap is widening rather than disappearing. 

As the recent research by Wilkinson and Pickett shows, inequality is bad for society.

The Agreement recognised this and made explicit references to tackling social inclusion, community development initiatives, a regional development strategy, Targeting Social Need, tackling the unemployment differential, and addressing the needs of young people, particularly at interface areas. 

Sadly, statistics show that the historically poorest areas in Northern Ireland are in many cases now relatively worse off than they were during the conflict. 

The prosperity experienced by the wealthiest areas of Northern Ireland from the late 1990s bypassed the poorest sections of our society.

For the local communities of the Donegall Pass and the Short Strand, the peace dividend amounted to middle class people parking in their streets, and walking past their houses into jobs in the Gasworks Business Park.
 
It’s no coincidence that many of these poorest areas also bore the brunt of the conflict. 

It’s morally and politically untenable that the areas which experienced the worst levels of violence are relatively worse off than they were during the conflict.

This is not a recipe for long term stability.

However opportunities exist to do something about this. 

There are numerous regeneration initiatives proposed throughout Northern Ireland, many placed right in the heart of some of the most socially and economically disadvantaged areas. 

Yet we have seen marked resistance to implementing these in a way that would have a real impact on unemployment, create more social housing and provide better facilities for the long-term disadvantaged. 

It’s scandalous that one proposal published by government suggested building private apartments in the city centre to ensure a mixed middle class community on the grounds that social housing would be segregated, sectarian and divisive.

It’s encouraging to see how many disadvantaged communities are working hard to tackle the problems they face.

They have accepted their responsibility to make change.

The least they can expect is support from government. 

Likewise, there has been much focus of late on economic investment but with little accompanying analysis on how that investment can best be used to target social need. 

If the people in our most disadvantaged communities do not feel the economic benefit of the peace process, they will feel left behind. 

And at what cost will that be?"

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