Northern Ireland's elusive peace dividend: Neoliberalism, austerity and the politics of class.

Author:Coulter, Colin


A recurrent motif of popular media commentary on the Northern Irish conflict is the insistence that the Troubles 'affected everyone' (Holmes 2007: 49). While this faith in the quintessentially democratic spirit of politically motivated violence enjoys widespread currency, it fails to square with the distribution of fatalities that defined a quarter century of conflict in the region. Looking at the deaths that occurred over the course of the Troubles reveals a remarkably consistent and concentrated pattern. Northern Ireland has 94 postcodes, but more than half of the fatalities that punctuated the conflict were concentrated in just 12 of them (Fay et al. 1999: 150). What these dozen neighbourhoods shared in common was that they were--as they remain--sites of grinding, multigenerational poverty. Indeed, if we were to draw maps of material deprivation and fatal incidents during the Troubles, these two images would be more or less interchangeable (Mesev et al. 2009: 900-901). The coincidence of poverty and violence during the Northern Irish conflict becomes especially apparent when we consider patterns of political violence in the region's capital. Of the 3,700 deaths that occurred during the Troubles, almost two out of every five happened in North and West Belfast (Coulter 1999: 73). These neighbourhoods were the most deprived in Northern Ireland during the conflict, and they have retained that unfortunate status throughout the peace process. According to Devlin et al. (2018: 11), no fewer than 18 of the 20 poorest areas in the region today are to be found in these two parliamentary constituencies. Examining the specific patterns of political violence that marked the Troubles suggests, then, an important qualification to that familiar refrain that the traumas of the period were universal in their impact (Kent 2016: 130). While the conflict may well have affected everyone, it most certainly did not affect everyone equally.

The intimate association between political violence and material deprivation that defined the Troubles would have an important bearing on the discursive construction of the Northern Irish peace process. Those who framed and championed the Good Friday Agreement were aware that ending the conflict would demand a radical turn in Northern Ireland's long ailing economy (Coulter 2014: 746-746). If those communities that had been at the very heart of the Troubles were to turn their backs on violence for good, that would require the provision of economic opportunities that had been denied hitherto. Influential figures in London, Washington and Dublin were, accordingly, keen from the outset to underline that the end of the conflict would usher in an era of sustained prosperity. This discursive connection between political and economic progress was given a characteristically evangelical tone by the British Prime Minister who presided over the signing of Northern Ireland's celebrated peace deal. In May 1998, Tony Blair arrived in Belfast in an attempt to coax wavering voters into lending their support in the forthcoming referendum that would determine the fate of the principal piece of architecture within the Northern Irish peace process. The British premier chose to visit the annual Royal Agricultural Show, allowing him to address an important section of a unionist community that was evidently deeply divided on the Good Friday Agreement. Those who cast a vote in favour of the new deal struck between all but one of the main local parties would in effect, Blair insisted, be saying yes to hope, to peace, to stability, and to prosperity'. A ringing endorsement of the new political dispensation would, Blair insisted, signal a peaceful and stable future' in which Northern Ireland would come to enjoy the favour and regenerative power of multinational capital: 'I have no doubt that there is a well of economic goodwill and potential inward investment out there just waiting for the right opportunity and the right conditions. Let us turn that prospect into a reality' (Blair 1998).

The at times evangelical faith that influential figures routinely expressed in the potential of the Good Friday Agreement to pave the way to economic prosperity has over time appeared more and more misguided. The much vaunted 'peace dividend' that was promised to those poor communities that endured the worst of the Troubles has simply failed to materialise in any meaningful sense (Knox 2016). That failure is the source of perhaps the most crucial of the multiple forms of stasis that continue to afflict Northern Ireland. For all the changes that have occurred since the advent of the Good Friday Agreement, the region has managed largely to retain its distinctive and iniquitous social-class profile. In that baleful period when it became synonymous with bitter internecine conflict, Northern Ireland existed as a society blighted by deep and durable material inequalities. The two decades that have passed since the region's 'long war' morphed finally into its 'long peace' have served little to alter that abject reality.

The political economy of peace

It is worth remembering that the Northern Irish peace process unfolded in a wider geopolitical context that for some time appeared ideally suited to the cause of economic progress. Those important moments of conflict resolution that culminated in the Good Friday Agreement took place after all against the backdrop of a sustained boom in the world economy (McCabe 2013). The end of the Cold War sparked a historically unprecedented wave of principally US capital seeking opportunities for investment and profit overseas. This surge in foreign direct investment happened, moreover, at a moment when advances in information technology engendered the faith that it was possible to generate economic growth in ways that are ecologically sustainable. As belief in the potentially progressive synergy of capital and technology gained ground in powerful circles in Washington and Silicon Valley, it would lead to claims of the emergence of 'the new economy' (Henwood 2005). The at times fevered optimism of the age was captured best in the publication that gave most explicit voice to a certain fashionable techno-utopian veneration of capitalism. Against the backdrop of a smiley emoticon, the front page of the July 1997 edition of Wired instructed readers to prepare for the long boom' of '25 years of prosperity, freedom and a better environment for the whole world' (Schwartz and Leyden 1997). And for a decade or so it often appeared that the editors of the journal might just turn out to be right.

If ever there was a time, then, when Northern Ireland might finally experience economic prosperity it was that period in the 1990s when the peace process gathered momentum. The main specific promise of those who had promoted the prospect of a 'peace dividend' was that the end of the conflict would spark an influx of multinational capital from the United States in particular that would in time revive the fortunes of the Northern Irish economy. In the immediate aftermath of the 1994 paramilitary ceasefires, it appeared that this version of events might actually come to pass. During the latter half of the decade, for instance, some 1.5 billion [euro] was invested in Northern Ireland by American multinational corporations alone, accelerating an already existing downwards trend in the unemployment rate in the region (The Portland Trust 2007: 23). This initial, promising wave of foreign direct investment would not, however, be sustained beyond the turn of the century. The ongoing weakness of Northern Ireland when it comes to attracting foreign direct investment is illustrated vividly in the record of the state agency established in 2002 with the specific brief of luring multinational capital to the region. As McCracken (2012) has documented, the almost 1 billion [pounds sterling] that Invest Northern Ireland (NI) spent in the first 5 years of its existence alone led--if jobs lost, as well as those gained, in sponsored companies are factored in--to the creation, on balance, of a mere 328 stable positions. It would seem that the 'well of economic goodwill' towards Northern Ireland that Tony Blair claimed to exist on the eve of the referendum on the Belfast Agreement had a decade later all but evaporated.

While the Northern Irish economy has remained consistently unable to generate or attract a large volume of new jobs, that has not, ironically, prevented a marked decline in the region's historically high levels of unemployment. Once a stark outlier, the ratio of the unemployed in Northern Ireland has over time moved towards the UK norm, even spending some recent years below the national average. In order to explain the apparent paradox of an economy that produces relatively few jobs registering a decline in its jobless total, we need to look more closely at the specificities of the Northern Irish labour market. The metric of unemployment used most frequently in mainstream commentary documents those who are seeking employment but excludes those who are not. As a result, the headline jobless rate provides an inaccurate profile of the labour market in a region like Northern Ireland that has the highest percentage in the United Kingdom of people of working age who are unavailable for work. The relatively high level of 'work-lessness' in the six counties may be attributed primarily to a dramatically elevated incidence of physical and mental illness (Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2018: 1). Over the course of the peace process, the proportion of people in Northern Ireland registered as disabled for social security purposes has run consistently at twice the level that exists elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Official figures suggest that as many as one in nine of the region's residents have been entitled to some form of disability allowance over recent years (Rutherford 2016). The markedly higher percentage of people...

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