Where you live affects how you live. I say this because the challenge for any of us, this blog included , who are committed to equality is to ensure that wherever citizens live, they have the same rights and entitlements as everyone else.
Over many decades, sectors of the city in which I live have been colour-coded by statutory agencies. They glibly refer to ‘green’ areas and ‘orange’ areas. Maps in the offices of public bodies demonstrate the institutionalised thinking which divides Belfast.
This was not merely a symptom of sectarianism. It follows the practice initiated by the British military. Since the British army used colour-codes, especially to define what they regarded as hostile nationalist districts, other public bodies followed suit.
It went so far that, the concept of ‘defensive planning’ permeated all facets of public life, from road networks to social housing developments. Counter-insurgency architecture was a facade of British rule.
Not surprisingly, the areas worst affected by the conflict over many decades, are also the areas which are most impoverished and deprived.
For example, a boy born in the west Belfast has a life expectancy 6 years shorter than one in affluent south Belfast. That fact was highlighted by the Minister for Health.
This blog recently received two papers to our Office which relate to different facets of this problem.
Firstly, the latest results of the Multiple Deprivation Index were published by the Department of Finance and Personnel. These are current up to May 2010.
In the latest results, 6 out of the top 10 most deprived neighbourhoods (so-called Super Output Areas) are in west Belfast. These are in the Falls, Shankill, Upper Springfield and Whiterock. When the analysis is extended to take in a larger geographical area, such as Assembly constituency boundaries, West Belfast is the most deprived community.
About one third of the population of Belfast live in west Belfast. A disproportionately high number of these residents are under the age of 18.
Measures of deprivation across the six counties, consistently record the fact that west Belfast experiences disproportionately high levels of disadvantage and social need.
In studies from several different sources (academic and the Northern Ireland Statistical Research Agency) and therefore employing different methodologies, west Belfast electoral wards have repeatedly appeared amongst the most disadvantaged in the north. (Townsend 1991; Robson 1991; Noble 2001; Noble 2005)
All of this underlines the hardened nature of the poverty and disadvantage in Belfast and the concentration of this in certain areas.
As the Health & Social Care Inequalities Monitoring system found, “a substantially higher proportion of the population in deprived areas” are from a Catholic / nationalist background. However, in Belfast working class unionist communities are being left behind as well and need our representation.
Despite these recent revelations on deprivation, there has been no clamour from the media or the usual quarters for action from the government.
Au contraire. According to the naysayers, it’s the advocates for economic change and the people they advocate change for who are at fault. This twisted logic barely disguises the disdain in certain quarters for those who have been dispossessed and denied their right to enjoy prosperity and peace in equal measure to all others.
On the other hand, there is evidence that change can be made when we are given the tools to achieve it. This was evidenced in the news release from the Health Employment Partnership about creation of nearly 150 jobs in its first three years. The project was inspired and informed by people in the Bronx, an impoverished part of New York city.
This is precisely the kind of collaborative practice and linkage between New York and Belfast which we need to foster to ensure that no-one gets left behind.
The Belfast project is the first of its kind and enables long-term unemployed people in the poorest communities of Belfast to access employment in nearby health employers. It has also enabled lower-paid hospital workers to re-skill and train for job progression, creating new vacancies for others to uptake. All of this has been achieved at a cost-per-job no existing government agency or programme can equal.
The ingenuity of this programme is that it turns the economic challenges facing people in the poorest communities upside down. The location of employment remains a strong factor in determining access to jobs, especially for those who experience long-term unemployment.
The Health Employment Partnership has taken the areas in Belfast where most poor people live and turned that into an advantage by creating employment opportunities in some of the largest local employers : the Royal and the Mater Hospitals.
Twenty five years after the MacBride Principles campaign commenced, a renewed and concerted effort is required to uplift the poorest communities.
As Sean MacBride said in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974 :
“The fundamental relationship between peace and human rights is now recognized. Structures which deprive persons of their human rights and dignity prevent justice from being realized; and systems which condemn people to starvation or to substandard conditions are a denial both of human rights and human dignity. It is these conditions which compel people to resort to violence.”
This blog remembers being asked by a visitor how we would know the peace process is working. We were walking in Turf Lodge in a deprived area in Belfast. “We will know the peace process is working when the people here are working”, I replied.
And so we will.