A constitutional reunification process provides an opportunity to build a new welfare state system from the ground up, prioritising the social, economic, and cultural rights of contemporary society, with the principles of dignity and respect underpinning its administration, argues Ulster University’s lecturer in law, Ciara Fitzpatrick.
It is a time of political and social flux in Northern Ireland society. Post-Brexit discourse has intensified the impetus for academics and civil society researchers to interrogate the policy implications for public services in the context of conversations around constitutional change.
The Department for Communities (Northern Ireland), and the Department of Social Protection (Republic of Ireland) are the biggest cogs in the governmental wheel, employing roughly 9,000 and 6,000 people respectively, with responsibility for administering a range of working-age benefits, pensions, employment schemes and a wide-range of other services. Yet, this is a policy area which has not received extensive attention in the increasing discord on the future of the island.
It is critical that debate on the future of the social security system is informed by reliable, peer reviewed evidence produced by experts in the area, which has led to setting up of the All-Island Social Security Network (AISSN). The new network seeks to bring together researchers north and south, who are working in the area of social security to imagine a new future for social security on the island of Ireland.
Social security in Northern Ireland
The British Social Security System, with which Northern Ireland largely maintains parity – and the social security system in the Republic of Ireland have more in common than which divides them, as both systems mirrored the development of the British welfare state following partition. Yet, in the last 10 years, we have witnessed increasing divergence in the generosity of both systems, particularly for those of working age, and in respect of the levels of ‘conditionality’ applied to claimants. Welfare conditionality determines the level of work-related activity that recipients must evidence before receiving unemployment benefit.
Current benefit levels in Northern Ireland are at an ‘all-time low’. When a centralised system of social security was introduced in Great Britain in 1948, unemployment benefit was equivalent to 20 per cent of average weekly earnings; today’s equivalent (universal credit standard allowance) has fallen to 12.5 per cent.
The most recent uprating in April 2023 means that working age social protection is being maintained at the greatly diminished level of adequacy it had reached by the late 2010s. Those at pension age have been protected to a greater extent, due to the Conservatives’ commitment to maintaining the ‘triple lock’ which denotes that pensions will rise by the highest of three measures – inflation, wage growth, or 2.5 per cent. Low benefit levels are combined with measures that are designed to target the reproductive rights of low-income families, such as the two-child limit, which affects over 6,000 households on Universal Credit (UC) in Northern Ireland and has significantly increased child poverty and a family’s capacity to afford essentials.
Social security in a ‘new’ Ireland
In our paper (2021) for the ARINS project, Charles O’Sullivan and I assert that a constitutional reunification process provides an opportunity to build a new welfare state system from the ground up, prioritising the social, economic, and cultural rights of contemporary society, with the principles of dignity and respect underpinning its administration. The complexity of coordinating the administration of both systems cannot be underestimated – particularly as the administration of tax and benefits in Northern Ireland remains split across the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland and HMRC in England.
We also consider the current co-ordination efforts on matters of social security contained in the Common Travel Area, and while we recognise what works well, and indeed what does not, we also acknowledge the considerable gap between co-ordination of two distinct systems and the formation of a whole island approach in the case of reunification. This will necessitate difficult conversations on the shape of a new system.
In respect of pensions, it is important to note the existing agreement between the British and Irish governments (Convention on Social Security 2019) in which Britain agrees to honour historic national insurance records of northern workers and existing pension entitlements of those retiring in the South. As Mike Tomlinson (QUB) underlines, this is ultimately a political matter, but for planning purposes the assumption should be that the law is honoured.
Ultimately, to answer all the crucial and difficult questions posed by creating a unified social security system will require going back to basics and revisiting normative questions such as ‘what is social security?’. If we do not get that right, and if we underestimate the value of comprehensive social protection in the creation of economic prosperity then the utopian vision of a new Ireland could be greatly compromised.