Reflections on G8
Economic growth and conflict transformation: a lesson from Northern Ireland
Seamus McAleavey, Chief Executive of Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) argues that economics should form a key pillar of conflict transformation
Violence and conflict have substantial economic as well as social impacts. Other countries emerging from conflict look to Northern Ireland as a model of where they would like to be, and whilst they are right to do so, it should be recognised that no peace process can stand still. Looking back over the 15 years since the end of the conflict it could be argued that Northern Ireland’s economy and the nature of our economic policies should have been given greater prominence in the overall peace settlement. However, as Northern Ireland’s leaders now shift their attention towards economic growth, simultaneously tackling economic exclusion and inequality is essential if we are to remain an example of successful transformation to the world.
The World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report, Conflict, Security and Development, showed that a country or a region which has experienced major violence over the last 30 years has a significantly higher poverty rate than those that saw no violence. The central message of the World Bank’s report was that strengthening legitimate institutions and governance to provide citizen security, justice and jobs is crucial to breaking cycles of violence. Countries and regions with the weakest institutional legitimacy and governance are the least able to respond to instability and external stresses.
Northern Ireland’s peace process is quite rightly held up on the international stage to denote conflict transformation and political stability. However, even though Northern Ireland is a region in one of the richest countries in the world, it is not an exception to the World Bank’s observations. Northern Ireland has persistently higher levels of unemployment, lower wages and more severe pockets of deprivation than many comparable regions in the rest of the UK and Europe.
Growth in inequality is one of the biggest external stresses Northern Ireland faces. Severe inequality can be very destabilising, especially for regions in conflict or emerging out of conflict. Political extremism and violence often arise when people feel economically and socially marginalised.
In Northern Ireland our peace settlement has focused on creating the conditions to end violence, the legitimacy of our political institutions, and tackling some social justice issues. Our voting system, power sharing, and the makeup of the Northern Ireland Executive have been successful at delivering much needed stability and validity. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that in order to sustain our success good economic governance is vitally important.
Northern Ireland’s economic strategy is focused on mainstream economic concepts such as growth, boosting exports and attracting foreign direct investment. As in many advanced economies, reducing inequality or integrating pockets of deprivation, are not core issues driving economic policy. Yet, given what we know about the destabilising impacts of inequality, they should be. This will require more flexible, localised and innovative governance and Government. It will require civil society, social enterprises, business and the public sector to work together to provide sustainable assistance to disadvantaged communities. And above all it will take strong and strategic leadership from within Northern Ireland.
By becoming a social and economic success Northern Ireland can be a renewed example to regions and countries emerging from violence across the world.