You sometimes hear people talk about the peace dividend. English reporters will do features in which they comment on the Waterfront Hall, the new apartment blocks overlooking the river, the bustling Europa Hotel, the Grand Opera House – Belfast, they say, is a transformed city. Well yeah, if you stick around the places above. All shiny and nice. But venture up the Falls Road or the Newtownards Road and note the difference. These streets – working-class areas – have the same grey pallor that poverty brings with it. The conflict was fought for the most part in working-class areas by working-class people. Now that the conflict is over (or largely so), those areas that bore the brunt of violence are still bearing the brunt of poverty.
A recent study by the University of Ulster nails one myth: that Protestant/unionist working-class areas are forgotten while ‘themuns’ – the Catholic/nationalists – are getting everything. Sixteen of the top 20 poorest districts in the north are Catholic/nationalist, the study shows. Yep, you read aright. Despite all the laws, all the changes, all the new dawns, Catholics/nationalists live in over three-quarters of the poorest areas here. So can we now just shut up about the balance being tipped to Catholic/nationalists, leaving Protestant/unionists in working-class areas stranded?
But the big divide, surprise surpise, is between areas in need of major economic investment and those where life is more cushioned. In education, better-off areas get an average of 62% of children passing their GCSEs with A-C grades. In deprived areas, the figure is 38%. The gap is narrowing but very very very slowly.
On the other hand, the job situation in these areas is getting worse. In 2008, 5% of people were out of work; by 2012 the figure was 11%. If you’re a man living in a better-off area, you’re likely to live six years longer than a man living in a deprived area. Crime in poorer areas is twice as high as that in the more salubrious.
Those who say that Belfast is a transformed city are either wilfully blind or very very stupid. It is transformed if you live in a comfortable middle-class area. If you live in an economically-deprived area, your life will be harder and your death earlier. Why don’t governments pour money into those areas that sorely need economic transformation? Maybe the answer is that they believe in the trickle-down effect: get the rich areas bubbling with economic growth and the wealth will seep down and everyone will be better off. Or maybe the answer is that deep down, politicians don’t give a damn about those caught in poverty with its attendant disadvantages. They can keep on doing less well in school, being more likely to be out of work, dying earlier than their middle-class counterparts but hey, that’s OK, that type of person is innately dumb to a greater or lesser degree so how would you expect educational achievement? That type of person is work-shy and is too busy trying to find ways of levering grants from the government, there’s no time to go looking for a job. And that type of person dies earlier because they’re ignorant and they eat fast-foods, drink too much and take no exercise.
But at least they’ve stopped killing each other, which is a mercy. I mean, some of the pictures you used to see in the papers. Pass the paté de foie gras, would you, dear?