Growing up as a Northern Irish and British boy in the 1950s and 1960s, it was an article of faith that the wealthy United Kingdom had the best welfare state in the world and the Republic of Ireland was a backward and impoverished place that couldn’t afford such a socially advanced system. Even after nearly 40 years of living off and on in Dublin, I find it difficult to rid myself of the notion that – despite all the Republic’s huge progress – when it comes to the social protection of the most vulnerable in society, the North is still ahead.
I was finally disabused of that notion at a seminar organised in Derry on 20 May by Joe Shiels and Annmarie O’Kane, the highly effective duo who run the Border People mobility information website (www.borderpeople.info) for the Centre. One of the main speakers was Michael Carr, who until a few weeks ago was the coordinator of the EURES Cross-Border Partnership, the Irish branch of the Europe-wide network which provides vital information for cross-border workers, job-seekers and employers. Michael is one of those very rare people who carries around in his head a wealth of information about job and training opportunities, the recognition of qualifications, taxes, welfare payments, medical cards, pension rights, transport links and half a dozen other areas of information vital for people crossing the Irish border to live and work (the kind of information we ordinary mortals have to consult the Border People website to find). Gary McIntyre, the greatly missed Enniskillen-based former cross-border Citizens Advice worker – who I wrote about last autumn – is another. They should pay such people the kind of princely salaries that would tie them to this vital work for decades.
In his address to the Derry seminar – entitled ‘The Frontier Worker’ – Michael Carr talked about the disincentives facing unemployed people in the South who might want to seek work across the border. The example he gave was of an unemployed single man in Donegal receiving €196 per week in social welfare (plus other allowances such as a free medical card and rent allowance) compared to his counterpart on the minimum wage in the North who gets £231 for working. He pointed out that even at this time of high unemployment, this means that there is not much incentive for the Donegal man to look for a job in Northern Ireland.
Other welfare payments are also much higher in the South. The non-contributory Old Age Pension is €219 per week in the Republic (and €144.70 for a spouse) compared to £97.65 (and £58.50 for a spouse) in Northern Ireland. The One Parent Family Allowance in the Republic is €196 per week plus €29.80 per child (the first €146.50 of earnings do not affect this allowance). The equivalent allowance in Northern Ireland is not much more than a third of this: £65.45 plus a means-tested Child Tax Credit of £20.30 for a first child and £13.40 for children after this.
Across a range of indicators a low income person in the Republic now appears to be better off than her or his counterpart in Northern Ireland, although I am not taking into account the higher cost of living in the South and elements of the ‘social wage’ in the North, such as the UK’s cheaper cost of health and education (although even here the South has some advantages: for example, a cross-border worker living in the Republic, regardless of his or her income, is entitled to a medical card, with free GP visits, free public hospital services and free medication).
So the next time you hear somebody like me (until this month!) warning that one reason a united Ireland is off the cards is because the South couldn’t afford to pay the cost of covering the gap in welfare payments, remember these telling financial facts. It’s no coincidence that one of the main issues officials in the two government departments dealing with social welfare talk about when they meet on an annual basis to discuss matters of common concern is cross-border ‘welfare tourism’, the bulk of it now consisting of Northerners making fraudulent claims in the South.
However given the current desperate state of the public finances in the South (soon to be mirrored in the North), it’s another question as to how long the Republic’s current generous welfare payments can continue. I noticed as May ended that the Irish government was proposing greatly reduced eligibility for one parent families claiming for children aged 13-18, and the Minister for Social Protection, Eamon O Cuív, was refusing to rule out pension cuts in this year’s budget.
Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.