Rory Small examines the effects of Northern Ireland’s troubled past on its communities today.
From 1969 until the late 1990s, ‘The Troubles’ presented Northern Ireland as a divided community. Fractures of religion and politics remain significant, while economic issues surrounding the conflict linger more faintly over the Northern Irish community. Even in its inception, Catholic civil rights movements in the 60s were campaigning for social and economic parity in what was already an unequal state. Nearly 25 years after peace was finally achieved, Northern Irish society continues to struggle with the fallout associated with this dark and sensitive period. The most visible signs of tension are seen in ‘peace walls’, murals, and the battle-scarred streets of Northern Ireland’s cities, but pain still lies within the cracks of this strained community.
Paying the Price
On an individual, business, and even governmental basis, the indirect effect of the Troubles can be recognised through shifting spending patterns. Having been on threat level ‘severe’ since terrorism classifications were first designed, security costs have been disproportionately high compared to the rest of the UK. Both individuals and businesses have purchased large amounts of surveillance and property-protective equipment, while increased spending on the police service has diverted funds away from more constructive government initiatives. Median annual earnings in Northern Ireland lag compared to the rest of the UK – £29,000 vs £31,000 in 2021 – and further expenses are inflated due to the region’s lack of development during the Troubles. On an individual level, this has had particularly onerous consequences for workers, with leisure time and spending also falling below other home nations. As the UK region most affected by mental health problems, with more related deaths in 17 years than fatalities during the conflict, a chilling ONS statistic also shows the community to be the biggest spender on alcohol and narcotics with nearly 3% of total household expenditure in 2016. Clearly, both the behaviours of those who have and haven’t experienced the conflict directly are impacted by the scars left on Northern Irish communities to this day.
Divided and Multiplied
Another significant wound of the Troubles lies within Northern Ireland’s education system, in which the legacy of the past is still so visible. Separating pupils from their contemporaries as toddlers, the majority of NI’s schools are aligned along religious beliefs. While the existence of religiously segregated schools has noticeable political impacts, its most damning effects on the community can be seen in the divergence of school performance along such lines. When accounting for other variables such as gender, the difference in school performance between faiths is stark, with the percentage of low-income Catholic and Protestant boys achieving 5 or more GCSE grades of Cs and above at 47% and 37% respectively (girls share a similar yet less pronounced variation). While laws such as the 2010 Equality Act enforce quotas for religiously diverse staffing, disparities in academic achievement follow these young people into adulthood, where greater risks of unemployment and low-paying jobs roll a continuous snowball of economic decline for those areas worst affected.
Despite these problems, with the highest spending per head in the UK on education, Northern Ireland has consistently outperformed the rest of the UK during the past decade in examination results. This pool of talent has spurred many companies to re-evaluate their investment within Northern Ireland, with firms such as PwC, Deloitte and various IT companies declaring their confidence in the region, and providing a wealth of beneficial positions and opportunities for the community unseen in previous decades.
‘May The Wind Be Always At Your Back’
But even if their own education and future prospects stretch so much further than that of their parents, do the younger, ‘new generation’ of Northern Ireland still see a future within such a community? According to local think-tank Pivotal, of the on-average 17,000 NI students who choose to study away from home every year, around three-fifths continue to live abroad after completing their studies. As expected, these students are again disproportionately split by religion (53% Protestant to 34% Catholic) and such a divide may induce future inequalities between communities. Unlike their peers in the Republic of Ireland who on the whole return home in seeking employment, Northern Irish leavers seem to continue the stereotype of the Irish migrant known centuries prior. Such a youth-led disdain for the region’s perceived future provides a bleak reminder of the fractures and difficulties that remain within this troubled community.