It is fair to say that things are going to get worse. A friend in the civil service says they have been told to implement 4% cuts this year, 8% next year and 4% the year after. Education has a 105 million black hole. Health is getting 70 million chopped off its budget. And all this is before Brexit even happens which depending on your view shall either be calamitous or the making of us.
My background is working class but now I have joined the ranks of the middle class it is interesting to observe how most of these cuts will not make a blind bit of difference to those who rule Northern Ireland. Now that I move in the circles of the people who make the decisions I can see how during good times or bad they are completely insulated from it all.
Take health. A lot of civil servants are part of Benenden private health insurance. Need to see a consultant or have an operation? No problem you can be zoomed to the top of the list. For everything else, there is no shortage of private health clinics up and down the Malone and Lisburn Roads that are happy to treat you today as long as they can swipe your credit card on the way out.
When it comes to education while we do have some private schools there is no real need when we have our Grammar schools. The middle classes do love their Grammars. They may be unfair but as an ex-grammar school boy myself, it is hard to argue with the fact that they do give you a great education and unless you are a complete chump you are guaranteed entrance into University. If there are cuts to school budgets well-heeled parents don’t mind firing in a few hundred quid to keep up standards.
As for lifestyle and cost of living, this is where Northern Ireland really comes into its own. If you have any kind of decent job Northern Ireland is a great place to live. Housing is cheap, relative to the rest of the UK or the Republic of Ireland. For £150k to -£200k you can get a lovely semi in Belfast. This would barely buy you a bedsit in London or Dublin. Eating out and entertainment is great value – £15 will get you two courses and a drink in many a fine establishment in Belfast.
And in your free time, you have a massive range of beaches, mountains and more practically on your doorstep. If you are a senior civil servant living the high life in North Down the lives of people in council estates are as remote to you as Amazon tribespeople. Administering a cut is nothing more than a few taps on the keyboard.
This post is not intended to be smug. I have a social conscience and it troubles me there are people out there who will literally die due to cuts. There are old people out there who live on their own and they are lucky if they get a home help for 10 mins a day. There are people living in pain and misery as they languish on waiting lists. Kids are going to school hungry. I can only imagine the utterly miserable monotony of being poor.
Nor do I think the people who make decisions are completely uncaring. They are good people who mean well, but human nature being what it is it is hard to relate to people and situations that are alien to you.
Lastly, I don’t think it’s all about the money. The big issue is our culture of comfort and conformity. People hate change so we just tend to bumble along. Our health and education systems are largely unchanged in 70 years. It is the 21st century and we are still using the models of the last century. To paraphrase Seamus Heaney, the motto of Northern Ireland seems to be “Whatever you do, do nothing”. If you are living a good life why rock the boat?