Poverty in Northern Ireland: A Legacy of the Troubles

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ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Ongoing conflicts often lead to the consequence of poverty. Moreover, poverty can continue to follow a community, region or country long after any active violence has ended. The effect of trauma, both on an individual and societal level following a conflict, can cause further harm to communities as they work to move forward. Poverty in Northern Ireland exemplifies this. The region contends with the legacy of the Troubles even more than 20 years after achieving peace.

The Troubles

The Troubles, as the conflict came to be known, was a period of violence spanning 30 years. The conflict occurred between people who wanted Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom and other people who wanted the region to join with the Republic of Ireland. Centuries of tension between two communities led to violence erupting in 1968. Religious divisions, notably between Protestants and Catholics, exacerbated the danger. Around 3,600 people died during the Troubles, and an estimated 30,000 more were wounded before the peace agreement in 1998.

“A lot of people have witnessed a loved one or a family member or a friend be hurt,” said Yasmine Hirsi, an American student who went to Northern Ireland to study the conflict. Hirsi, who worked with reconciling communities, explained that “they’ve witnessed such traumatic events, and so for them, it’s not too far in the past.” A 2012 study found that 10% of adults had lost a close relative in the Troubles. Furthermore, 33% had witnessed a bombing, and 45% knew someone killed or injured during the conflict.

Those impacted by the conflict had and continue to have higher rates of mental illness, joblessness and poverty, often in a fashion where one factor heightens another. Hirsi informed The Borgen Project that “the conflict detrimentally affected the lifetime opportunities as well as the wellbeing of the working class.” Hirsi added that even now, “despite living in a post-conflict society[,] there are remaining obstacles that many, including young people, have to go through.”

Child Poverty

The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) published research on the state of affairs in 2019 and 2020. It found that 22% of children in Northern Ireland live in relative poverty. This equates to about 100,000 children. Data show that 17% of children lived in absolute poverty. Childhood poverty can lead to long-term consequences for children as they and their communities grow older. This form of poverty links to social exclusion and can increase the chance that those afflicted become involved in dangerous behaviors, groups or both. The paramilitary groups still present in Northern Ireland often recruit from the younger population.

Hirsi explained that “children growing up in these disadvantaged communities are experiencing a mixture of determinants such as poverty, poor health, illnesses, a lack of educational attainment and discrimination.” The process “also creates this ‘us versus them’ mentality at a very young age because they get to see how they’re living versus their counterparts.”

Employment in the Region

Many people in Northern Ireland also struggle to find quality employment. Much of the region’s economy relies on a range of employment types from consistent and well-paying to low-income. Recent NISRA data highlights that men in the region are employed full-time more than women. In addition, “approximately 60% of employed women with dependent children worked full-time[.]” This is in contrast to a near-total full-time employment rate for men with dependent children. For many households in Northern Ireland, overcoming poverty demands full-time employment from two parents, which is not often possible.

Childcare demands, sometimes made more difficult by a lack of childcare options, likely still limit economic activity for women. Even in cases of full-time employment, 40-hour workweeks do not always enable people to meet their financial needs. This adds to the entrenched nature of poverty in Northern Ireland. Also, it shows the importance of keeping the legacy of the Troubles in mind as work on addressing these problems continues. Unemployment and its related issues weave a complicated web, where past issues still carry statistically significant impacts on the current reality.

The Work Ahead

“Poverty is like the root of the social problems,” Hirsi shared, “but there’s this collective effort that can exist.” Alleviating poverty in the region can take many different forms, such as improving the quality of the job market. Government investment could help accomplish this. Such investment could lead to diversification of the types of employment while also encouraging and helping fund local entrepreneurship.

To engage youth, there is also a growing number of programs and organizations working with students. These programs, like Hope for Youth Northern Ireland, focus on education, recreation and cross-community engagement. By involving youth in their communities, reduction of social exclusion is possible. Children can also receive opportunities and experiences that can be valuable later in life.

Arguably one of the most important parts of addressing poverty in Northern Ireland is the ongoing work of reconciliation. The Troubles still persist in the collective memory of countless individuals. There are more than 30 organizations throughout the region devoted to encouraging peace and healing. Some work by fostering community communication; others by providing spaces to discuss individual trauma and finding shared identities and passions. Examples of organizations include the Causeway Institute for Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution, Groundwork Northern Ireland and the Peace and Reconciliation Group.

These efforts are vital to the ongoing peacebuilding process. They continue as an integral part of addressing the poverty that is so closely related to the Troubles.

Nicole Ronchetti
Photo: Flickr

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