On 30 June 2015 the High Court in Belfast ruled  NIQB 59 that the Northern Irish Executive failed its statutory duty to adopt an identifiable strategy setting out how it proposes to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation based on ‘objective need’. This is a country where sectarian divisions still bleed across communities, democratic institutions and key public services such as education and social housing, and where hard decisions on financial austerity must soon be confronted. The judgment is a timely reminder of the commitment the powerful made, in a post-conflict climate of hope, to those most in need.
The principle of equality, particularly between Northern Ireland’s two warring factions (Loyalists/Unionists and Republicans/ Nationalists), was central to the Good Friday Agreement 1998, which brought an end to the country’s internal armed conflict. This principle found statutory form in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (the Act), which established a positive duty on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity (s.75(1)), having ‘regard to the desirability of promoting good relations between persons of different religious belief, political opinion or racial group’ (s.75(2)).
The commitment to equality was developed further in the St. Andrew’s Agreement in 2006, which led to the addition of s.28E to the Act. This requires the Northern Irish Government to “adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation based on objective need”. As recognised by the High Court, the inclusion of ‘objective need’ and the decision to place it on a statutory footing marked the intention “to remove or reduce the scope for discrimination by tying the allocation of resources to neutral criteria that measure deprivation irrespective of community background or other affiliation.” [para 50].
The judicial review was brought by the Committee on the Administration of Justice, which argued that the Executive had failed to adopt a strategy that satisfied the s.28E duty. In the absence of any evidence of such a strategy, Justice Treacy had little difficulty in finding in favour of the applicants.
First, taking the Oxford English Dictionary definition of strategy as his starting point, Treacy J reasoned that because a strategy is “intended to guide, to set a course”, it must demonstrate a number of features, including: a completeness; a chronology; an aim to be effective; a capacity for such effectiveness to be measured [para 46]. The Executive, instead, could only offer a document that was a starting point for the development of its strategy, which sat alongside a collection of other policies/interventions/frameworks. It did not inspire much confidence in the Executive’s case when the applicant’s produced evidence of two government officials pointing to separate documents when asked where the strategy could be found.
Second, turning to ‘objective need’ under s.28E, Tracy J stated it would be difficult for the Executive to develop and deliver a complaint strategy without a specific definition of ‘objective need’. The absence of such a definition by the Executive was made clear after a Freedom of Information request was made by the applicants which asked for documentation defining ‘objective need’ or explaining how it is calculated. The Executive’s response: “We hold no information in relation to the material requested”.
Like many European countries, Northern Ireland faces considerable economic difficulties. It has the third lowest living standards and the highest rate of economic inactivity in the UK. The Welfare Reform Bill is set to unleash greater cuts to public spending when (if?) it is finally enacted by the Northern Irish Assembly. Importantly though, social and economic hardship is, of course, faced across both of Northern Ireland’s two main communities, but it does not fall equally. As stated by Paul Nolan (2014: 13) in his authoritative Peace Monitoring Report:
“Catholics still experience more economic and social disadvantage than Protestants. According to the Labour Force Survey they are more likely to be unemployed, according to the census they are more likely to be in poor health and, according to the Family Resources Survey, they out-score Protestants on almost every measure of social deprivation”.
Now is the time when the most vulnerable across all of Northern Ireland’s communities, including the growing number of minority ethinic groups making the country their home, ought to be able to rely on a coherent, accessible and measurable Executive strategy for addressing poverty, social exclusion and deprivation on the basis of ‘objective need’. As Treacy J concluded, “that will be a matter for the Executive in due course”.