Throughout recent talks to address the serious financial pressures facing Northern Ireland’s budget, one important area of spending was not raised by anyone but Alliance.
According to independent estimates, division in our society costs us up to £1.5 billion per year. Let that enormous figure sink in for one moment. Then think of just how else that money could be spent. How many important services could be sustained or improved if even some of that money could be redirected.
That’s why my Alliance colleagues in the Assembly will propose a motion today (Monday) calling on every Executive Department to take action to tackle the cost of maintaining a divided society, while auditing their policies and spending plans to help ensure a shared future.
There is no denying that we have made progress in Northern Ireland over the past 16 years, but our community is still damaged by division, sectarianism and bigotry. It blights lives, destabilises neighbourhoods, hampers progress and poisons politics, while costing us dearly, both socially and financially.
Those financial costs of division are evident in several respects. There is of course the direct cost of policing unrest and dealing with violence and instability.
There are also the indirect costs of duplicating services such as schools, leisure facilities, health centres and bus services. Then we have the lost opportunity costs, the things we can’t do or miss out on because of division and its impact on communities.
The implications affect us every day. As protesters at Twaddell Avenue recently marked 500 days of their protest camp, it emerged the cost of policing it is estimated at £12 million. This comes at the same time as the Department of Justice revealed cuts to its budget will have a severely detrimental impact on policing.
Our budget is set at Westminster and is a fixed amount. Money spent on division is money lost to other services. In addressing the budget challenges, all parties should be looking to tackle the cost of segregation and division – to unlock up to £1.5 billion to be spent on key services for everyone. Immediate action could save about £24 million by promoting mixed housing and £80 million by increasing the level of integrated education.
Alliance Ministers David Ford and Stephen Farry have actively been shared future proofing all decisions taken by their Departments for several years, yet none of their peers appear to do the same. If other Ministers followed their lead, we could ensure our schools, hospitals, colleges and police did not have to face such devastating cuts.
Alliance recognises sectarianism and segregation are the most serious issues facing Northern Ireland – sapping our finances, impeding growth and wrecking lives. Improving community relations and increasing integration and the sharing of services would allow us to develop a truly shared future while also placing spending on a more sustainable footing.
The prize is significant. Let's step forward to deliver the change together.