Thursday, 27 March 2014

Peace brings no dividend to the poorest in Northern Ireland, but how do we measure poverty anyway?

Peace brings no dividend to the poorest in Northern Ireland - Eamonn McCann

There is an interesting opinion piece in today's Irish Times, discussing a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report into economic deprivation in Northern Ireland, and concluding that devolved government has made things worse, economically, for the poorest in Northern Ireland rather than better.

This could come as no surprise.  While the involuntary coalition system that arose from the Good Friday Agreement might have had a chance of working if the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP had remained the two largest parties, it creaks under the strain of domination by two parties whose existence and electoral success depends on perpetuating the division of Northern Ireland into us and them (or as we say in Northern Ireland "usuns" and "themmuns").

It is an extraordinarily dysfunctional system of government, but Northern Ireland is an extraordinarily dysfunctional place, and poor governance is, it has to be concluded, the price of peace.  It is in the gift of the Ulster Unionists and SDLP to improve it, by voluntarily going into opposition and holding the executive to proper scrutiny, but the calculation by both parties is that they have to remain at the top table to remain relevant.  This is, in my opinion, a misplaced view.  Both parties are struggling to survive in the long term, and the only way to do that is to present a credible alternative - to give voters a positive reason to vote for them.  They cannot do that while playing second-fiddle to their main electoral opponents within the Executive.  Perhaps an official salary for the Leader and deputy Leader of the Opposition might help change their minds?

In any event, Eamonn McCann highlights another issue with how poverty is measured: it is relative.  The poverty level is officially 60% of median income.  I accept there are reasons for doing so, but have some conceptual issues with poverty being relative, when in a developed society what we are really talking about is income inequality, not poverty as it was traditionally understood.  In any event, poverty in the UK is relative and defined at the level mentioned.

My beef then, is with the complaint that when incomes across society drop, the statistics show that people are "lifted out of poverty", when, in reality, they are actually getting poorer.  It highlights the problems associated with defining poverty as a relational concept, but you can't have it both ways: argue that it is relative when incomes are growing, and complain that it's not when they are falling.

The deep irony of all this in a Northern Ireland context is that the DUP and Sinn Féin's core support comes from the areas that are being failed most by the Executive, as the JRF report highlights.  However, the DUP seems happy to waste its time and efforts focusing on sideshows like flags and the like to shore up its vote (and take back DUP First Minister Peter Robinson's East Belfast UK Parliament seat) which get its impoverished supporters riled up and makes them more likely to vote, but hinders effective governance to improve their lot.  This then has the effect of further undermining confidence in the Executive, particularly among unionists, as it demonstrates that sharing government with Sinn Féin delivers nothing for "usuns".

The problems of deprivation and poverty have the same root causes on the Falls and the Shankill, in East and West Belfast.  But as ever in Northern Ireland, flags and parades (our version of bread and circuses) mean that on election day, many voters end up casting a vote against their own economic self-interest.

1 comment:

Mark Connolly said...

Just to be pedantic and annoying because you made it into the St Louis video and I didn't !

While relative measures of poverty are imperfect, to refer to it in terms of income differentials is slightly crass, if technically true.

I worry about the recent criticisms of using measures of relative poverty (imperfect as it is) as they serve a wider IDS agenda of seeing deprivation in cultural terms.

The anomaly about some people moving out of poverty during a recession is overplayed and needs a qualification as it conflates relative and absolute- poor people only move out of poverty in a recession if their income depreciation is smaller than the average depreciation: so only people who get slightly poorer (or whose income remains the same or increases) move out of a categorization of relative poverty.