Fifth NI Peace Monitoring Report shows a Northern Ireland stuck in neutral, sometimes in reverse #NIPMR

Published two years after the Stormont institutions collapsed, the fifth Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report [PDF] is a sobering read.

Many of the statistical themes are now familiar, but the lack of urgency in addressing them – and the stagnating effect of having no functioning Executive, Assembly … or Secretary of State – leaves a sickening feeling in the stomach of this reader. The words ‘persistent’, ‘unchanging’ and ‘growing’ negatively jump out from the report’s executive summary and 200 page narrative.

The foreword explains that the report is intended to highlight “the challenges facing our peace and political processes in the honest and comprehensive way that is needed for all people who can influence for the better going forward”.

Even political targets, like the one set in 2012 to remove all peace walls by 2023 have only made “limited progress” in the absence of political leaders willing to create an atmosphere where change can happen.

Organised under four dimensions – political progress; the sense of safety; wealth, poverty and inequality; cohesion and sharing – the fifth report, the first to be produced by a team at Ulster University (Ann Marie Gray, Jennifer Hamilton, Gráinne Kelly, Brendan Lynn, Martin Melaugh and Gillian Robinson) begins with a beefed-up economic analysis that sets the scene.

“NI’s recovery from the 2008 recession was more modest than the rest of the UK” and the gap in economic growth is widening. It’s a tale of two decades: before 2008 NI outperformed the UK average; since 2008 we have increasingly underperformed.

What is being done to tackle the problem that what “on average a G7 country can produce in 3 days […] takes a UK worker 4 days and an NI worker 5 days to produce”. This can hardly be merely dismissed because “NI has a higher concentration of employment in lower productivity sectors” since “workers within those sectors also produce lower levels of output than their UK counterparts”. We’re vulnerable to automation and increasingly global production chains.

Welcome to Northern Ireland where – compared with England, Scotland and Wales – we have the second fastest growing population, the youngest population, the highest fertility rate, and the lowest death rate in the UK.

The political dimension examines key political moments from June 2016 through until the report being finalised in October 2018 (publication was delayed until January 2019). Irish Passport Applications from Northern Ireland and Great Britain are charted. The likelihood of violence caused by potential border changes is assessed.

Pages 57 and 59 list issues and expected progress that have been deferred and delayed awaiting ministerial instruction across NI’s government departments.

The sense of safety dimension reminds readers that “crime in NI is lower than in England and Wales across most crime categories”. Homicide is down (to just 17 in 2016/17) but “PSNI statistics show there were 28 victims resulting from paramilitary style shootings in 2016-17, double the number recorded in the previous year”.

After a five year surge, the daily prison population in 2016 dropped back to 2010 levels. For the first time since 2012, total prison receptions increased in 2016. However, while more people entered prison, prisoners were staying on average for a shorter time. And according to the World Prison Population List (last published in 2016), Northern Ireland has a small prison population in comparison with the rest of the UK, with 87 prisoners per 100,000 compared to 148 for England and Wales.

Asked how safe they felt in your local community, 93% of respondents to the April 2017 Policing Board Omnibus survey responded positively, up from 91% in April 2016, and with the ‘very safe’ category rising from 42% TO 49%. [The question wasn’t asked in the April 2018 survey.]

The wealth, poverty and inequality dimension contains the health warning from the Institute for Fiscal Studies that Northern Ireland is “likely to see sharply increased rates of poverty, especially child poverty, as welfare ‘reforms’ are implemented”.

Housing tenure has changed “dramatically” in the last decade, with a rise in the private rented market, a continued trend of a lower proportion of public renting, and a fall in ownership (though with a rise in outright ownership as long term borrowers pay off their mortgages). Drilling into the 2015/16 figures shows a near doubling in private renting by 18-34 year olds (from 27.6% in 2005/06 to 50.2% in 2015/16. Ownership with a mortgage for that same age cohort dropped from 49.6% to 31.4%. The proportion of private renting by 34-49 year olds had an even more marked increase from 6.8% to 19.9%.

And in parallel, recent figures suggest that “one in ten households in NI spend more than 40 per cent of their net household income on housing costs and these are most likely to be those in the private rented sector”.

Department for the Economy figures show that a “reliance on migrant workers [that] is most obvious in the manufacturing of food products, waste collection, in residential care facilities and in food and beverages. The data shows that from 2004 workers from across the EU have been relied on to fill lower skilled and lower wage jobs.”

Meanwhile, statistics from the Nevin Economic Research Institute show a growth in insecure forms of employment, with increases in the percentage share of self employment in the labour market, and a decrease in permanent full time employment.

Ministerial targets for health service in-patient and out-patient waiting times have not been met. The number of in-patient/day case admissions waiting 13 weeks has jumped from 35% in 2014 to 55.3% in 2016 and now 63.1% in 2018. (The 52 week figure was increased from 12.6% in 2016 to 21.6% in 2018.) Waiting times (9 weeks) for out-patient appointments nearly doubled between 2014 and 2016, and got marginally worse by 2018.

Would a health minister in post have made a difference or kept a more steady focus on the issue?

The cohesion and sharing dimension points out that despite the political inertia, mounting health waiting lists, educational underinvestment and economic drift, NI remains remarkably resilient. At the same time as having “the largest proportion classified as long-term sick or disabled of the UK regions” and persistent intergenerational mental health issues above GB rates, “the region is ranked as one of the top in the UK in terms of having low levels of anxiety or stress and high levels of life satisfaction happiness.”

However, signs of our unhappiness also persist. The Irish Times on 29 July 2018 is quoted saying: “According to the Samaritans, the suicide rate in the North now exceeds the UK average, with its figures showing an 18.5 per cent increase since 2014 compared to a 3.8 per cent rise in the UK as a whole.”

The peace monitoring report notes that “a Draft Strategy for Suicide Prevention entitled Protect Life 2 … was due to be published in 2017 but, with the lack of a working Assembly and Executive, this strategy has not been signed off”.

The 2017 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey shows a significant religious division in attitudes to flag flying. The (male-heavy) Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition – part of the 2014 Stormont House Agreement – has still not published its report, and will not until it has been read and signed off by ministers in the NI Executive. “In the continuing absence of any final recommendations, the onus continues to fall on public bodies to address the issue at a local level.” And in recent days, we can see how the funding of bonfire diversion schemes by Belfast City Council (and others) remains an issue that concerns some councillors and citizens.

The first four peace monitoring reports had a single author, backed up by an advisory committee. For the latest volume, the multi-author approach brings a wealth of expertise to the detailed commentary, but at times this fifth Peace Monitoring Report has the feel of a document written by committee, with a slightly distracting mix of typographic traits and chart layouts, as well as some themes (eg, wellbeing) repeated across sections. While there are some new spatial distribution maps, gone are the insightful infographics which illuminated some of the earlier reports.

One of the joys of the NI Peace Monitoring Report is its ability to juxtapose figures that are normally not seen together.

While “the Draft Programme for Government Framework (2016-2021) recognised the importance of the arts sector to NI society both in social and economic terms”, the £20 million of funding in 2016 for a new film studio by Belfast Harbour dwarfs the annual Arts Council NI budget of ~£10m that has been annual cut by 4% or more in each of the last few years.

A spate of elections and by-elections in recent years has increased the proportion of female elected representatives. However, the Commissioner for Public Appointments has noted that gender equality targets for boards of public bodies [targets set by the NI Executive] has been made “impossible to attain” as new members cannot be recruited without a government minister in place, with departments making “unprecedented” numbers of extensions to the tenures of board members and chairs.

And perceptions of community relations are going backwards with a 10 percentage point drop between 2016 and 2017 in adults who think that community relations are better than five years ago, and a 12 percentage point drop in adults who think community relations will be better in five years time.

There’s a challenge for the politicians absent from the NI Executive, and absent from any meaningful talks process.

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