Deprivation begets violence. But what is the solution?

Northern Ireland has suffered another bout of summer violence. Low level and localised but depressingly familiar and shocking all at the same time. Cars burnt out, petrol bombs thrown at the police, 80 police officers wounded – one seriously when a piece of masonry hit her on the head – all in the space of four nights of rioting. Most people had thought that this was a thing of the past and that Northern Ireland had moved away from such scenes.

There is no question that there has been sometimes unimaginable change in the region over the past decade, and Northern Ireland is a better place today for this, and for the many other positive benefits of the peace process.Yet, for all this change, some things have stayed the same, and the ‘peace dividend’ has yet to be felt in many neighbourhoods – particularly some of the most troubled. In a recent article in the Guardian, Mary O’Hara writes about the background to the violence, and, more particularly, about the background of the rioters. She highlights that all too often, the factor that leads to violence – and is more often ignored – is the chronic deprivation of the areas and the people who live there.

The thing is, that for all the progress – and boy, has there been much to celebrate in recent years – districts such as the Ardoyne and parts of west Belfast remain areas of incredible, entrenched deprivation. For all the admirable work by individuals, local groups and communities at large to turn things around, sectarianism remains and poverty and social exclusion are its willing partners in crime.”

In a previous post, I wrote about Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church in North Belfast, under the auspices of engaging young people in heritage led regeneration. During a community consultation on the possibility of restoring this architectural landmark, I spent a lot of time reading the Dunlop Report. Back in 2002, it was recognised that North Belfast suffered from some major social ills. Three men, led by Rev. John Dunlop, spent a period of time examining what these social and economic problems were before suggesting some ways of dealing with them. The report did not make for happy reading, nor does it do so today, despite almost a decade passing since it was written. My guess is that if the report were being written again today, it would say exactly the same thing again. In the foreword to the report, the three men wrote,

“We cannot overstate the significance of this problem [the division of communities and violence between them] or its potential to destabilise other parts of Belfast and Northern Ireland. We have been told that the situation in some areas is getting worse. While assistance is necessary from outside the area, such assistance must help local people, at all levels, to have the confidence and generosity of spirit to constructively tackle their local problems which are often the result of the breakdown of relationships and therefore of trust.”

The rest of the report continues in much the same vein, and rather than repeat it here, I would urge you to read at least the Executive Summary.

The work I mentioned on Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church includes statistics from the NI Statistics and Research Agency, the government’s statistics gathering and analysis arm. These did not make for happy reading either and two specific points from this data are regularly quoted by me – 6 of the 10 electoral wards immediately surrounding the building are in the top 10 most deprived wards in Northern Ireland, and in 2005, only 2.7% of the population in the Shankill ward had a university degree; the NI rate is 15.8%. There are others: just 23% of schools leavers had 5 or more GCSEs at Grade C or above in the Shankill ward (63% in NI); in the New Lodge ward, 44% of people between 18 and 59 claimed Income Support in 2004 (11% in NI as a whole); and almost 16% of all recorded crimes in Northern Ireland were committed in either North or West Belfast. As a whole, it means that West Belfast is the most deprived parliamentary constituency in Northern Ireland, closely followed by North Belfast as the number two on that list.

University education is not the pinnacle of achievement, and the requirement for income support is not in itself a bad thing. Put them together, along with the presence of high rates of crime, major health problems – particularly mental health problems – and the continuation of double digit rates of long term unemployment (people out of work for 12 months or more), and the picture becomes bleak. Mary O’Hara’s point that poverty is the backdrop to the recent riots is the headline. The root cause is the lack of aspiration, and the sense of desperation that comes with that.

It is easy to see how young people in these heavily deprived areas feel trapped, as though the world is passing them by. Segregated in their local areas, with fierce loyalty to their own small patch of territory, and with neither incentive nor desire to mix with the population from the ‘other side’, there is an inevitablity to these young people seeking a way to draw attention to their situations. When dissident republicans are bent on causing trouble, and young people in these areas sense a way of bringing attention to their sense of loss and abandonment, little is going to stop this combination ending in violent outbursts.

The cause of the violence in recent days can well be traced to the marching of the Orange Order, but what in particular caused this year’s marching season to be more violent than last year’s or the year before? Something has to be seen in the chronic, long-term deprivation of the areas where the rioting occurred. Yes, there are people in these areas who are unhappy with the political settlement in Northern Ireland. Their support, such as it is, will continue to grow whilst society at large continues to ignore the real costs of segregation, of failing to tackle the lack of aspiration amongst young people, and of the sheer sense of loss and abandonment in these communities.

Part of what I believe has to happen involves an entire generational and attitudinal shift, both in our thinking about how to deal with deprivation, and in how we engage with these communities.

The answer has to lie in working with people, particularly young people, and allowing them to discover that there is something more than what has gone before. It is about showing them that they can remain loyal to their communities and their territories whilst looking outwards. It is about using their talents and skills to make their communities more successful. It is about finding a way of allowing these communities to see that the talents for delivering change lie within, rather than them hoping for a government department to deliver change for them. Back in the Dunlop Report, a telling paragraph reads,

 “A dichotomy…exists whereby young people in North Belfast feel depressed by their environment and engage in activity which intensifies their problems yet nevertheless they have a strong attachment to their community. They fear leaving it even when they know there are many opportunities and resources available elsewhere. They need encouragement to take a step outside their daily routines, to discover their talents and to serve their community.”

Furthermore, there is a wariness of outsiders and a wariness of people offering help. More often than not, promises have been made and shattered. Government strategies have been written and quickly forgotten. Masterplans have been drawn up only to be redrawn, and redrawn and never actually implemented.

Delivery is therefore key; but it must be delivery of something practical, beneficial, long-term and something that is based on solutions that come from within the communities. Young people, and the development of skills, will be vital, as will finding a sustainable project that taps into their talents. That wariness of outsiders and of broken promises will take years to eradicate. The division between communities might well take generations to eradicate. The depressingly chronic social and economic problems of these areas might also take generations to change, but that’s no reason not to try and the best way to do that is to foster a culture of aspiration amongst young people. O’Hara herself writes,

“If we are serious about dealing with social exclusion, with poverty, with youth criminality, with knife crime – whatever manifestation of a troubled society we are talking about in Northern Ireland, or anywhere else for that matter – we need to start with asking “why”, and we need to finish with an answer that doesn’t simply reinforce the miserable status quo.”

Nothing would break the status quo more than by, firstly, working with the local communities to help them find solutions from within and, secondly, creating a culture of aspiration that gradually, but radically, breaks down the cycles of dependence, despair and disappointment.

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Filed under Belfast, Future, Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Politics

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