December 1, 2023

Democratic wellbeing in Northern Ireland continues to cause concern

by Jennifer Wallace, Carnegie UK

Last week I was in Belfast for the Future Politics conference, an annual event run by Stratagem and supported by the Hume Foundation. The event creates a space to imagine a better politics, and a better future for Northern Ireland.

It did so against a backdrop not of its own troubles, but the riots overnight over the border in Dublin. Younger men, wrongly convinced of the causes of a terrible attack on school children and galvanised by social media had created scenes more normally seen in the North. In Belfast, the conference attendees were mindful of the message that stability and social order is vulnerable.

I was there to launch our new findings on wellbeing in Northern Ireland, under the banner of our flagship Life in the UK programme (carried out in partnership with Ipsos). The data combines responses from a range of questions about different aspects of wellbeing to give a picture of overall social progress. Our key messages were particularly apt for the meeting that day.

Firstly, democracy is in peril. While there is a crisis in trust across the UK, trust in government and other institutions is much lower in Northern Ireland than elsewhere, with a majority of people feeling like that they cannot influence any level of government. The very poor levels of democratic wellbeing in Northern Ireland mean that it is more difficult for all spheres of government to deliver effective social, economic or environmental policy.

Secondly, and perhaps feeding the first, social inequality is rife. Too many people are being left too far behind. Looking across broad areas of wellbeing (social, economic, environmental and democratic) we found that disabled people, those living in areas of deprivation, social housing tenants and those from Catholic community backgrounds were all more likely to report lower levels of wellbeing. And the differences were not small, we found a 16-point gap between disabled people (58) and non-disabled people (74) in relation to economic wellbeing alone.

Back in Dublin on Monday this week, for a seminar on wellbeing led by the Taoiseach, the government buildings were surrounded in safety barriers. A visual reminder, if any was needed, that democracy is always fragile and needs to be protected. The first step for Northern Ireland has to be reconvening the Stormont Assembly, after which a strong, wellbeing focused programme of government will be essential to recover from the uncertainty and insecurity of the past few years.

Photograph by PressEye