Babies born in the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland will live considerably less healthy lives than children born in India. Poor people in the North have a “healthy” life expectancy on a par with those living in Sierra Leone.

The most deprived 20 per cent of households in Northern Ireland are so deprived that their babies born today can expect a “healthy life” for only 53 years. The corresponding figure for Sierra Leona is 52.9. The average Indian can expect 60 years of a healthy life, more than someone born in a poor community in the northeast part of this island.

These are extreme figures, but Northern Ireland also compares unfavourably with its neighbours – by various measures.

On average, people in Northern Ireland are a lot less healthy than their southern cousins. The average person in the Republic can expect to live a healthy life for almost a full decade longer than people in the North. The figure for the North is 61 years and the corresponding one for the Republic is 69.4 years.

This is the reality of life and death on the island of Ireland.

In western Europe it is not normal to go backwards on key metrics like health and education. When it comes to education, Northern Ireland is a markedly different society to the Republic. According to a study by the ESRI, young people between 25-34 were more likely to have high levels of educational attainment (college, university and other tertiary education) in the Republic (over 55 per cent) than they did in the North (40.7 per cent).

Of this group between 25-34 in the North, 20 per cent have “low levels of education”, compared with 7.4 per cent in the Republic. People are more than three times more likely to leave school early in Northern Ireland than in the Republic and 93 per cent of those aged 15-19 in the Republic are in full-time education or training, compared with 74 per cent in NI.

These basic health and education numbers feed into how people live their lives. Most recent numbers (2020 data) found that nearly one-third of those aged between 16-64 in Northern Ireland are neither working nor in education and training. Economists have a nice term for it – “economically inactive”. Northern Ireland has the highest rate of economic inactivity in any UK region.

Maybe you think the Republic couldn’t be paid enough to take this place on; you are not alone. This seems to be the strategy of unionism. The game plan for those in red, white and blue seems to be to turn the North into such a basket case that the only option is indefinite protective custody of Westminster.

Who cares if their people die too young, spend more years on disability benefits, underachieve in school and have takehome pay far below citizens of the South, as long as the flag flying atop the boarded-up leisure centre is a union jack? Who cares if the Republic’s economy is close to nine times bigger than that of the North? What we have, we hold.

One fascinating aspect about the social and economic evolution of Ireland is that the island comprises a type of economic laboratory. To the outsider, what we have on the island is the same people – more or less – with two different political jurisdictions: two different systems and two different outcomes. We also have 100 years of data to compare and contrast. For the economist, you couldn’t ask for more. It’s East and West Germany or North and South Korea, with the exception that both these examples are divided by a profound ideological chasm.

Despite no real ideological divide between Northern Ireland and the Republic, the data diverges. Both are liberal democracies, both are capitalist societies, both were members of the EU (until recently in the North’s case), both have similar population structures and both are on the same island, with the same natural resources. And there has been peace for about 25 years.

Going back further, Northern Ireland began with a huge economic advantage. Before 1921, the north of Ireland was much more prosperous than the south. It was an industrial powerhouse with 70 per cent of women in Belfast working in manufacturing and 32 per cent of men.

Compare that with just 32 per cent of women and 20 per cent of men in Dublin working in the sector. Guinness did most of the heavy lifting in Ireland, accounting for nearly 30 per cent of net industrial output. By 1911, Belfast was the biggest city in Ireland with a population of 386,947, bigger than a declining Dublin at 304,802. At the outbreak of the first World War, two-thirds of the industrial output of the entire island of Ireland came from the six counties that would go on to become Northern Ireland. The northeast was by far the richest part of the island.

Unionist politicians, who ran the place for most of the intervening 100 years, were given a chance this week to reset the economy. What are they doing with this opportunity?

The Windsor framework is a real chance to reorient the northern economy towards the world. It will be a hard slog to attract investment but the sales pitch is potentially transformative for companies in Great Britain that want to export to the EU without hassle and for outside companies looking to gain unfettered exposure to two large markets, the EU and the smaller but still significant UK. For local entrepreneurs, it is a wonderful chance to be middle men, trading with both blocs.

Maybe more important than the obvious positive practicalities is a potential change in the mood music surrounding Northern Ireland. This deal provides the chance to reframe what the North stands for. Is it an enterprising part of the global economy, focused on raising the living standards and conditions of its people or an atavistic backwater, preferring flags over fortune? Unionism faces that choice.

Yet again it appears that the leaders of unionism will vouch for the past over the future; rendering them yet again the politicians who never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.


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