Legacy of Troubles can’t be ignored in Northern crisis

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OPINION:  In a new report on the North, all references to the conflict are decidedly in the past tense, writes David Adams  

A  report published last week by the London-based think tank, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), paints a grim picture of (mainly working-class) post-conflict society in Northern Ireland. Inappropriately titled Breakthrough Northern Ireland  , the report describes inordinately high levels of educational underachievement, long-term unemployment, welfare dependency, family breakdown, poverty, deprivation, mental illness, suicide, debt, alcohol dependence, illicit and pharmaceutical drug abuse, and anti-depressant use.

Anyone familiar with working-class communities across the North will not be particularly surprised by the findings. They provide statistical confirmation of what has long been suspected, though that doesn’t make them any less concerning. Northern Ireland has all of the societal problems that exist in pockets of Britain and the Republic, only to a far greater extent.

The North has the highest levels of economic inactivity in the UK, with unemployment figures more than doubling during the past two years (from 25,000 to 56,000) and 22,400 people classified as long-term unemployed. This translates into 14 per cent of children being raised in “workless” households. Experience suggests that the report is correct to claim that these children are more likely than their counterparts from working households to experience family breakdown, suffer low self-esteem, be socially excluded, do badly at school, become parents during their teenage years, be workless themselves in adulthood, or earn less if they do enter employment.

If only we could blame everything on rising unemployment – but we can’t. There are too many issues that predate the recession.

About one-quarter more people in Northern Ireland suffer from mental illness than in England and Scotland, with an especially high prevalence among men. Nearly 50,000 men and women are registered as being unable to work because of mental health or behavioural problems, and nearly 90,000 people are using antidepressants on a monthly basis. The number of registered drug addicts in the North has increased by 12 per cent since 2007.

Levels of alcohol consumption in Northern Ireland are frighteningly high, even by Irish standards. Nearly one in 10 adults (about 100,000 people) consumes alcohol every day; one in six people drinks three or more times a week; and 72 per cent of males and 57 per cent of females aged between 18 and 29 binge-drink at least once a week.

And on and on the pitiful litany goes. The North still has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe; about 25,000 domestic violence incidents were recorded by the police during 2009 to 2010 (despite being easily the most underreported of crimes, anywhere); and last year 260 deaths were registered as suicides, the majority of the victims being male.

There can be no quibbling with the report’s statistics; they appear to be meticulously researched. However, the conclusions drawn, and the suggested remedies, betray the CSJ’s British Conservative Party connections.

There is, for instance, an unhealthy concentration on single-parent families and welfare dependence, while employment appears to be the proposed solution to nearly every ill. These are important issues, but they hardly go to the heart of what is ailing a profoundly depressed, overlarge section of Northern society.

For whatever reason, there is no mention in the report of what effect the continuing existence of paramilitary groups may be having on public health. It correctly contends that the Troubles cannot forever be blamed for every social problem, but all references to the conflict are decidedly in the past tense. Yet for many working-class communities the Troubles have never quite ended. They remain, in at least one important respect, an inescapable part of their everyday existence.

For example, even leaving aside the republican dissidents, and an assorted ragbag of pseudo-political thug groupings, one would be hard put to find a sizeable working-class community in the North that is not playing reluctant host to an overbearing paramilitary organisation, in one guise or another.

The two governments and others have entrenched the position of paramilitaries by the funding of numerous fancy-titled front organisations. This policy has ensured that it is not in the financial interests of former leading combatants to return to conflict, but it has done nothing to lift the spirits of host communities. If anything, it has added to a pre-existing sense of hopelessness. Not only must people continue to live in fear, they now have to deal with the knowledge that their sometime oppressors enjoy support from (albeit well-meaning) governments and significant others.

The CSJ is either unaware of all of this, or, amazingly, has dismissed it as irrelevant to their research. Yet it is a situation unique to Northern Ireland, and so may go a long way towards explaining why problems relating to lack of ambition, mental illness, anti-depressant reliance, and drug and alcohol abuse are so much more pronounced in the North than in Britain or the Republic.


Source: The Irish Times, 09/09/10
Journalist: David Adams