Ian Parsley was Conservative and Unionist candidate for North Down at this year's general election and has been an advisor to the Centre for Social Justice in Northern Ireland since September 2009. Here he draws on the conclusions of the CJS's report, Breakthrough Northern Ireland, which was published at the end of last week.
The recent Breakthrough Northern Ireland report, upon which I advised the Centre for Social Justice, is a complex, 50-page document analysing in depth not just the scale but also the specific nature of social breakdown in Northern Ireland. Sensationalist headlines have appeared in the regional press about it, but these not only fail to do it justice, but also miss the point – namely that most of these problems are entirely in line with the rest of the UK. Far from Northern Ireland being a "basket case" as suggested in one newspaper, in the field of tackling poverty we have much to teach, as well as learn; and much of what it has to learn has to be applied by the Executive in Belfast, not the Cabinet in London.
Northern Ireland, in my view, has two distinct advantages when it comes to reversing the five pathways to poverty identified by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) in its seminal research (and which inform much of the new Coalition Government's work on welfare reform). The first is that with our devolved settlement, local politicians are able to take the principles of the CSJ's research and tailor them according to local needs. The second is that, for all the negative trends, Northern Ireland is comparatively advanced in areas such as addiction recovery progammes (even if there just aren't enough of them) and basic community cohesion, and thus has a foundation to tackle poverty within local communities which does not necessarily exist elsewhere.
Where Northern Ireland falls down particularly is on worklessness, and herein lies the biggest challenge to existing attitudes among our politicians and in society more generally. Executive ministers cannot go on promoting the illogical idea that because Northern Ireland has higher rates of non-working families, it should be immune from welfare reforms designed to put people into work; nor is the excuse that we do not have enough work a valid one. Even in times of "full-employment", nearly 30% of the working-age population were not in work in Northern Ireland – yet labour shortages saw immigration to fill positions; in any case, having more people in work will in itself create more job opportunities. All the evidence is that, far from opposing programmes designed to put people back into work, we in Northern Ireland should be piloting them!
If only one thing comes out of this report, it should be this: some of the assumptions underpinning Executive policy in Northern Ireland are out-dated or even just lazy. Throwing money at the problem has not worked, and defining success by the amount of money spent provides no evidence of real positive change. In its 50 pages, the report provides a voice for those trapped in poverty and evidence – direct from the coalface – of the real cost of social breakdown (and associated social division). That evidence should be a basis towards re-shaping our attitudes towards tackling poverty and all the pathways which lead to it. If we have less money with which to tackle it over the coming years, that is all the more reason for ensuring the way we spend it provides real value and delivers tangible success.