Communities worried that worst is still to come in Northern Ireland

29th Nov 2012

The fear of rising unemployment is just one of the issues Mary O'Hara heard about when she visited Northern Ireland in the latest of her austerity reports from around the UK.

Travelling across Northern Ireland from inner-city Belfast in the east, heading west to Cookstown in rural County Tyrone and then to Derry-Londonderry, it is clear that people share many of the same concerns about the economy and unfolding austerity policies as their counterparts elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Some of the policies already in effect in England and Wales, such as large-scale public sector job cuts, have yet to be fully implemented in Northern Ireland, but there are a number of overlaps. The public sector accounts for 27.7 per cent of all employment – more than any other part of the UK – so fears about rising unemployment are strong.

There are concerns about fuel poverty, rising levels of personal debt and a corresponding growing reliance on loan sharks and pay-day lenders. There are worries too about a lack of affordable housing and a shortage of well-paid, full-time jobs – and around the impact of welfare changes that appear to be disproportionately affecting disabled people and other vulnerable groups. In fact, the stream of issues comes thick and fast from everyone interviewed.

At the bustling offices of The Law Centre in Belfast city centre, not far from some of the most prominent symbols of the regeneration that followed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, a large gathering of frontline charity workers and anti-poverty activists discuss passionately and with a sense of urgency some of the immediate and projected problems related to austerity policies.

"We have a huge recession, job losses, a housing market that is completely bust and still going downhill," one member of the group explains. "Coupled with that… the big issue is welfare reform, which is just creating so much fear among people."

There's a real fear about the bedroom tax, which is a bit more significant perhaps in Northern Ireland because of the problems we have here, where we are a segregated society, so we don't have the movement maybe that you have in other cities or rural areas in the UK."

It is expected that any future economic recovery for Britain will be slower in Northern Ireland and with child poverty standing at 28 per cent (compared with a 20 per cent UK average) there is a discernible unease about the months ahead.

Prominent issues include the impact of cuts to child tax credits, especially on women, made worse by a dearth of child care, low pay (sometimes below the minimum wage) and a lack of good public transport (especially in rural areas). Northern Ireland has high levels of disability, so targeting disability benefits for cuts – one interviewee calls it "low hanging fruit" – is causing huge problems, while another complicating factor is the large rural population.

Also in Belfast, a group of retirees, all members of the campaigning organisation The NI Pensioners’ Parliament, are keen to share their anxieties about the future of health and social care, changes to the state pension and the gruelling impact of acute fuel poverty in Northern Ireland, as well as broader concerns about the economy. They also directly vent their frustration at the banking sector.

One member of the group says a particular problem for older people everywhere is that government is sending mixed messages about how it proposes to support this growing sector of society, and adds that many people feel unfairly targeted by changes around universal entitlements such as bus passes.

They are giving with one hand… and take away with another," he says.

Another man says he doesn't believe 'the penny has fully dropped' about the potential problems in store with the proposed introduction of the Universal State Pension. Despite their consternation, however, the whole group are adamant that by coming together and campaigning they can positively influence some of the political decisions affecting them.

Further west in Cookstown, a town of around 11,000 in rural country Tyrone, much of what is talked about echoes that of people in Belfast, including the lack of jobs for both younger and older people, welfare reform and snowballing personal debt.

However the rural nature of Cookstown and the surrounding areas make for additional difficulties, including the absence of good public transport and local jobs according to a group of local people including members of the Rural Community Network and former politician and civil rights campaigner, Bernadette McAliskey.

Everyone in the room nods vigorously when one woman insists that austerity is having such dire effects on an already struggling community that the policy should be reassessed entirely.

Austerity is not working. It isn't working anywhere it's being used. I do not know why anybody with a so-called intelligent mind would attempt to bring austerity in when they can see it isn't working anywhere else."

The group is critical too of political rhetoric around 'skivers and strivers' – both at Westminster and locally – saying it 'demonises' people who are struggling. They argue too that the 'squeeze' austerity puts on people's incomes is contributing to mental health problems.

Across in Derry-Londonderry, Jackie Gallagher, who runs the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) for the city, talks of an economic situation worsening by the day in an area with already entrenched economic difficulties. She says that it's not only the UK economic situation having an impact but also the fallout from the serious problems in the Republic of Ireland's economy since 2008. Since the beginning of 2012 she says more people than ever are pleading for help at CAB’s offices.

I see people now are becoming more angry. They're more frustrated… Their issues are more complex. People are being targeted. The disabled are being targeted, our young people, our families…. People are scared stiff."

The worst, she says, "has yet to come."

This insight is part of our Austerity in the UK project, looking at the the impact of public spending cuts, policy change and the state of the economy on disadvantaged people and places in the UK.