'Social Policy Responses to Urban Violence in Northern Ireland' by Derek Birrell
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The following chapter has been contributed by Derek Birrell with the permission of the editor and publishers. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
Managing Divided Cities
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Managing Divided Cities
Edited by: Seamus Dunn
SOCIAL POLICY RESPONSES TO URBAN VIOLENCE IN NORTHERN IRELAND
by: Derek Birrell
A number of social policy initiatives have been introduced in
Northern Ireland as part of the government's strategy for managing
the conflict. Such responses have been designed specifically to
address issues pertinent to the continuing violence and instability.
They tend to have been directed at the mitigation of acute social
deprivation, community divisions and violence. It is important
to note that the range of policy options open to government is
restricted by a number of factors influencing the content of initiatives,
the funding of initiatives and the delivery of initiatives.
Constraints on social policy responses
(i) The parity principle
(ii) Financial constraints
Table 1 Per capita expenditure
Source: Expenditure Plans and priorities, HMSO (1993) Cmd.2216
Table 2 Public spending by function
Source: Expenditure Plans and Priorities, HMSO (1993) Cmd.2216
(iii) The administrative system
The recognition of the prevalence of acute deprivation, particularly
in urban areas, has underpinned several special initiatives. It
has been long accepted that Northern Ireland is the least prosperous
region of the United Kingdom and has high levels of poverty, unemployment,
ill-health, low income and welfare dependency. The official unemployment
rate reached a peak of 19 per cent in 1986 but has now declined
to 14.6 per cent. Northern Ireland has the lowest average gross
household income of any UK region and apart from pensioners has
a larger proportion of its population receiving almost every kind
of benefit (Bradshaw, 1989). However the incidence of social deprivation
is not evenly spread and has been most acute in the inner areas
of Belfast. In 1976 a Belfast Area of Needs Survey (BAN, 1976)
used 39 indicators of social needs and characteristics to identify
two main needs syndromes, unemployment/low family income and substandard
housing/poor physical environment. The most deprived wards were
concentrated in the west of the city along with the inner city.
An updating of this data in 1987 found little change in the geographical
distribution of deprivation. Multiple deprivation was still very
evident in the inner city extending westwards from the city centre.
Levels of unemployment and long-term unemployment remained particularly
high. However, one indicator of deprivation did show a dramatic
improvement with the proportion of unfit housing falling to 7
per cent reflecting the high levels of public expenditure on housing
in the'70s and'80s. In the light of this statistical information
the government has launched several urban initiatives.
(ii) Belfast Action Teams (BAT)
Belfast Action Teams is an additional measure which is complementary to the main Making Belfast Work strategy. There are eight action teams covering inner areas of Belfast displaying multiple deprivation and one team covering severely deprived peripheral housing estates. The Action Teams consist of seconded civil servants based in the local areas who can fund projects to increase employment, improve employability, facilitate the coordination of services and promote community improvements. An analysis of projects has shown that only 11 per cent relate to employment and business (PA Cambridge Consultants, 1992) and most support has gone to community groups and neighbourhood groups. The project has successfully encouraged community development and made government more accountable to local community groups.
(iii) The Londonderry Initiative
The Londonderry Initiative was set up as the equivalent of Making Belfast Work also in 1988. This strategy was more generally focussed at various aspects of urban decline as they relate to the Derry area (HMSO, 1993) including physical dereliction, social deprivation and economic difficulties. The programme again recognises the major problem of unemployment, standing at 22 per cent in the city's travel to work area. The objectives are somewhat similar to Making Belfast Work, to attract private sector investment, to help people secure jobs and increase their employability, to refurbish the physical environment and promote the image of the city. Between 1988 and March 1994 £14.6 million will have been spent on the Initiative which is directed by the Department of the Environment based in the city. Apart from the promotional projects there are really only two strands to the programme. One is an enhanced urban development grant assistance which has helped private enterprise to revitalise mostly derelict city centre sites. The second strand is a Community Action programme which has been rather limited in scope so far and has been used to support a craft village, a job club, job promotion abroad, mental health research and environmental improvements. Assistance to encourage private sector investment is the major achievement to date.
(iv) Community Economic Regeneration Scheme (CERS)
This is a programme to provide opportunities for urban communities to become involved in the development and ownership of major economic assets in areas where the private sector has shown itself unwilling to invest. The scheme is funded equally by the Department of the Environment and the International Fund for Ireland. The intention is to create large scale schemes providing industrial, commercial, retail, office and community facilities. To date there are four CERS schemes in Belfast and one in Derry, two of which have been given some £5 million each in funding. One problem which has emerged with CERS and similar schemes based on local community involvement is the more developed infrastructure of community groups which exists in Catholic areas compared to Protestant areas. Thus it has proved difficult to initiate CERS schemes on the Shankill Road and in East Belfast.
There is little doubt that the government will continue to use
special initiatives to help improve opportunities for people living
in deprived urban areas. Such schemes do provide additional resources
and assistance for disadvantaged areas and encourage innovative
projects. However these urban initiatives have been subjected
to a number of criticisms. It has been suggested that they are
largely compensatory, filling in for public disinvestment caused
by reductions in social security payments and cuts in services
(Gaffikin and Morrissey, 1990a). Another criticism is that such
schemes are pushing money into deprived urban areas in order to
veer support away from paramilitaries. There have been instances
of 'political vetting' leading to a refusal by government to fund
certain groups and allegations of government support going mainly
to safer groups such as those with church connections (Rolston
and Tomlinson, 1988). A more fundamental question has been raised
about neighbourhood economic regeneration. It may be unrealistic
to expect private sector involvement given the limited scale of
private sector operations in inner city areas and the traditional
high dependence on the public sector. Edwards and Deakin (1992)
have questioned the whole concept of inner city regeneration through
the enterprise culture.
Inequalities between Catholics and Protestant communities have
been much publicised in Northern Ireland's history. The Cameron
Commission (1969) investigation had identified discrimination
in housing and employment, particularly in local government, as
a major factor in the outbreak of civil disturbances. Subsequently
the British government was to make action against discrimination
in housing and employment a major objective of its package of
social reforms. The fundamental reorganisation of public sector
housing administration in 1971 led to the creation of a unique
structure in the United Kingdom, the Northern Ireland Housing
Executive, as a single comprehensive housing authority. This policy
was justified in terms of the urgent need ' to introduce fair
housing allocations and end housing shortages. The Housing Executive
quickly introduced a model allocation scheme based on fairness
and need and the principle that resources for housing should be
distributed equally throughout the community. Twenty years on
the Housing Executive can claim to have taken housing out of politics
and ended allegations of sectarian discrimination in housing (Brett,
1980). Thus the establishment of this body can be seen as having
successful policy outcomes but there is an important caveat to
note. There may never have been a major problem with discrimination
on public housing. The 1969 allegations were somewhat exaggerated,
the Cameron Commission had little statistical evidence and the
1971 Census shows no evidence of systematic discrimination.
In employment, however, the pattern of disadvantage has continued.
The Continuous Household Survey has shown a Catholic male unemployment
rate of two and a half times that of Protestant males throughout
the 1980s and this has only decreased slightly. Unemployment rates
are at their most acute in West and Inner Belfast with a recorded
rate of 46 per cent in Catholic West Belfast
Table 3 Religion and tenure, percentage in public rented
Source: N.Ireland Census and Continuous Household Survey
and 35 per cent in Protestant West Belfast. Inequalities in employment
have resulted in some of the most interventionist and distinctive
social policies introduced into Northern Ireland. Fair Employment
legislation in 1976 set out to promote equality of opportunity
in employment and religious discrimination in both the public
and private sector was made unlawful. A Fair Employment Agency
was set up to promote equality of opportunity, examine patterns
and trends in employment and secure remedies for unlawful discrimination
against individuals. Continuing patterns of inequality in several
industries and authorities led the Agency to admit that over 10
years real change had not been dramatic. These considerations
plus external pressures from the MacBride principles campaign
and the Anglo-lrish Agreement resulted in a strengthening of the
measures in 1990. New legislation created two different bodies,
a Fair Employment Commission (FEC) responsible for monitoring,
affirmative action and contract denial and a Fair Employment Tribunal
responsible for individual complaints. The new provisions required
all employers with more than ten employees to make annual monitoring
returns and to review recruitment, training and promotion priorities.
The FEC can require affirmative action measures and goals and
timetables to remedy imbalances. The legislation is committed
to affirmative action rather than quotas or reverse discrimination.
Despite the improvement in Catholic representation in major areas,
e.g. the civil service, the unemployment differentials remain,
and as Whyte (1983) notes current discrimination has only a subordinate
part in explaining Catholic disadvantage. Unlike the housing example
the key to the policy outcome lies in the deep structural reasons
for disadvantage. Among a range of factors noted (Osborne, 1992;
Smyth, 1987; Eversley, 1989) are the difficulty in job creation
during an economic recession, the concentration of the Catholic
population in areas with no tradition of industrial or commercial
activity, the time for new staff to be promoted to senior posts,
the tendency for Catholic students to take arts/humanities courses
rather than science and technology and the chill factor deterring
Catholics from working in certain areas. Gallagher (1991) notes
the lack of agreement among researchers on the continuing significance
of direct or indirect discrimination. Questions can be raised
about the value of a legalistic approach to Fair Employment compared
to, for example, public sector job creation in Catholic areas.
Table 4 Religion and personal income
Source: Continuous Household Survey, Religion No. 1 (1993)
Source: Continuous Household Survey, Religion No. 1 (1993)
The proportion of Catholics in professional/managerial occupations
has increased significantly between 1986-87 and 1990-91 (CHS,
1993), although Catholics are still less likely than Protestants
to hold professional/ managerial or other non-manual posts and
Catholics have higher representation in the semi- and unskilled
manual occupational groups.
Government policies have also developed to address community divisions
although some of these have been less focussed and more problematic
than in other policy areas. There are three topics worth noting:
community relations, integrated education and residential segregation.
The content of community relations programmes involves the development
of cross community contact and co-operation between existing community
groups, voluntary bodies and schools or the encouragement of mutual
respect and understanding between the communities. Some of these
programmes have advanced to more focussed reconciliation and conflict
resolution work. There are three main forms of statutory support.
A special Central Community Relations Unit was set up by government
in 1987 to co-ordinate the programmes, find community relations
work and ensure government Departments look at the community relations
impact of all their policies. The unit is also responsible for
developing new ideas to improve community relations and reduce
prejudice. The Community Relations Council is a statutory body
providing support and facilities for organisations operating at
the local level to promote contact between the communities. Parallel
to this work is a cultural traditions programme to promote respect
for local cultural diversity. The Council tries to ensure that
issues of sectarianism and community relations are on the agenda
of as many organisations or groups as possible. A further initiative
has been the use of local district councils to improve community
relations through funding for community relations officers. Despite
some initial suspicion from Unionist councillors all of the 26
councils now have community relations officers and programmes.
The objectives of this programme are to develop cross community
contact, promote greater mutual understanding and increase respect
for different cultural traditions.
Education for Mutual Understanding (EMU) is a curriculum based
programme for schools which allows Catholic and Protestant schools
to work together through group outings, joint work in each others'
schools and residential activity. EMU operates in the context
of a divided school system and a widespread recognition that segregated
schooling initiates children into conflict by emphasising group
differences and hostilities (Murray, 1985). One of the best known
innovations in social policy in recent years has been the growth
of new integrated schools attended by both Catholics and Protestants.
This policy has received a strong commitment by government to
the encouragement, recognition and financial support of such schools.
The numbers attending integrated schools remains small (just below
2 per cent) and there are still uncertainties about the integrated
sector's future size, impact and contribution to community relations
While segregation in schools and employment has attracted government
attention and produced social policy responses residential segregation
has not. Residential segregation has increased significantly since
the first population moves in Belfast and Derry in 1968-69. The
reasons for increasing segregation are a combination of fear,
intimidation and personal preference. The Housing Executive has
accepted the inevitability of residential segregation in the public
sector. Singleton (1985) concluded that the Housing Executive
had effectively sorted its waiting lists into Catholics and Protestants
and provided separate housing estates for the two groups. Some
of the manifestations of residential segregation are dramatic,
the security walls between estates at interfaces in Belfast and
the almost total movement of the Protestant population from the
city side of Derry across the river to the Waterside. Yet no policy
responses have been forthcoming to counter growing segregation
or maintain existing integrated estates.
It is not easy to evaluate the impact of these programmes on community
relations. The government has suggested macro indicators relating
to social integration, a reduction in violence and intimidation,
political co-operation, the attitudes of communities to each other
and increased levels of equality of opportunity. There are difficulties
in determining what constitutes improving community relations
and progress is likely to be slow given continuing violence and
One area of very direct policy response to violence has been rather
neglected in writings about conflict and social policy: the response
to violent incidents. The intensity of the bombing campaign directed
against commercial properties and public buildings in towns and
cities has increased in recent years with related damage to private
dwellings, churches and other buildings. This has resulted in
a range of responses from statutory agencies which falls into
the category of emergency planning but has significant social
policy aspects. Emergency responses are now required so frequently
that they have almost become a matter of routine (Birrell, 1993).
Emergency assistance can be divided into four categories: physical
repair, financial assistance, medical assistance and social assistance.
A comprehensive co-ordinated process of physical clearing-up,
repair, demolition and rebuilding is necessary and one of the
more innovative policies has been the empowerment of the Housing
Executive to provide first-aid repairs to all residential homes
including all privately owned dwellings. A further unique feature
is the payment of compensation to those who have had property
damaged through violent attacks. This reflects an acceptance that
it is not the victim's fault and that costs are too large for
insurance companies. The Compensation Agency has paid out some
£600 million and the scheme does mitigate some of the consequences
of the bombing campaign. There is a parallel scheme of compensation
for personal injuries. Medical care services have given priority
to disaster planning and nearly every hospital has experience
of activating their plan with the major Belfast hospitals regularly
invoking their plans. Medical lessons learnt range from the procedure
of removing all injured persons to hospital for treatment rather
than incident site treatment, to medical expertise in the treatment
of gunshot injuries. A major development in recent years has been
in forms of social assistance. Traditional forms of assistance
such as emergency accommodation have been augmented through a
more proactive role by several agencies, for example mobile advice
and assistance centres set up by the Social Security Agency and
the provision of trauma counselling by social work agencies.
An examination of social policy responses to violence shows such
responses as having two main objectives: firstly the mitigation
of the consequences of violence, for example, the lack of industrial
investment, community polarisation and physical damage; and secondly,
the reduction of the level of violence, directly through community
relations policies but also through policies which tackle inequalities.
The government has recently introduced a new focus for all their
policies, 'Targeting Social Need'. This is an initiative to focus
programmes and policies more sharply on those areas and people
in greatest need and to reduce community differentials which
contribute to violence. It is, of course, difficult to measure
the effect of social deprivation on conflict. Deprivation and
perceptions of relative deprivation may be a factor in persuading
people to take up violence. Research has however shown little
support for this proposition. Schellenberg (1977) reported a stronger
role for specifically political factors than for socio-economic
deprivation. Hewitt (1981) also found that statistically grievances
were not a cause of violence and nationalism was a much stronger
motivating force in the Catholic population. Thompson (1987) further
suggests that escalations in collective violence are not the result
of increasing deprivation. On the other hand it is clear that
the majority of participants in the violence came from the poorer
sections of the community and from more deprived localities.
This examination of social policy responses suggests six main
(ii) Policy responses have usually been directed and implemented by statutory bodies rather than by voluntary, community or private sectors. Some recent successful involvement by the voluntary sector may suggest that more could he done to empower local communities to overcome apathy, develop local leadership and facilitate social change.
(iii) Policy responses have tended not to diverge too far from British practice and experience and are influenced by the principle of parity.
(iv) Policy responses which are more clearly distinct and different from British practice relate very closely to the unique features of the Northern Ireland conflict, e.g., to religious beliefs or the nature of violence rather than, for example, to poverty.
(v) Although policy responses may reflect financial constraints extra public expenditure has been permitted in Northern Ireland even in direct contradiction of recent government commitments (Gaffikin and Morrissey, 1990b).
(vi) Finally there remains the question of the extent to which
welfare policies and special initiatives have helped ameliorate
and reduce the level of violence in Northern Ireland. While they
have not stopped the violence, without such policies the violence
may have been worse.
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