Austerity may fuel dark forces

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A stark new report by left of centre alliance, the Equality Coalition, warns heaping further austerity and cuts to public sector employment on places like Londonderry, where nearly two thirds of children are living in poverty, could send us spiralling back towards violent conflict.

The Equality Coalition, co-convened by trade union Unison and human rights NGO, the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), yesterday launched the report at Stormont.

It’s based on a recent anti-austerity conference, which was chaired by Drumahoe-native Susan McKay and addressed by Londonderry academic Goretti Horgan and the Cookstown-based Chair of the Rural Community Network, Charmain Jones, among others.

“Growing up in persistent poverty can really exacerbate the downsides, such as poor educational attainment, poor health and acquisition of criminal records.

“One in 10 of NI children is living in severe poverty,” Ms Horgan told delegates.

“In particular we see Derry City with nearly 2/3 of children in poverty. Employment rates in these areas are so low and this says something about the geographical divide in a region like Northern Ireland,” she added.

Ms Jones said ordinary people living in country areas of Londonderry and other parts of Northern Ireland are living in fear.

“There are concerns over the economy and the unfolding austerity policy no matter where I go across this country,” she said.

“Rural people are afraid of the rising unemployment, they are afraid of losing their public sector jobs, many rural women are afraid of cuts to their benefits, there are fuel poverty concerns, personal debt concerns, affordable housing and the welfare changes.”

Daniel Holder of CAJ suggested Equality Impact Assessment duties could be triggered by some of the ongoing austerity measures such as downsizing public sector employment, which he says will have a more damaging impact on women.

The Sentinel has previously reported how a beneficial side effect of a large public sector in Northern Ireland is a narrower gender pay gap, especially in the west of the province.

But the difference in pay between men and women here, which is less than in Great Britain, due partly to the greater availability of better paid public sector jobs for local women, has already risen as a result of the recession.

Mr Holder asked: “What will be the impacts on the unemployment differential and on equal pay for women etcetera? We also know higher proportion of public sector employment is in places that suffer higher deprivation like West Belfast and Londonderry, what will be the impacts in these areas?”

In the report, Unison Regional Secretary, Patricia McKeown, suggests a destabilised society is the worst case scenario.

“These issues need to form a core part of political conversation. If they do not, then the impact is further destabilisation in this society. While we may not immediately go back to war, we have not been violence free since the Good Friday Agreement. The patterns may well continue into yet another generation if left unchecked.”

And at the launch of the report yesterday she said: “On official figures we have been subjected to £3.7 billion of cuts already and there is more to come from the Tories, neither Westminster nor domestic austerity is acceptable.

“There are policy choices the local Executive can take to increase revenues from the rich rather than further cutting services. It is time for our government to start sharing power, rather than dividing resources on an unfair basis.”

Mr Holder said: “One of the pillars of the peace settlement was supposed to be moving away from historic patterns of inequality and deprivation, ‘austerity’ is putting those trends into reverse gear.

“It is not a question of us being a ‘special case’, it is a question that inequality here in a divided and post conflict society impacts differently, and London appears oblivious to this.”