Northern Ireland (NI) has its long list of issues. Enduring division, high levels of socio-economic deprivation and political instability would not make NI the obvious choice for the UK’s “happiest” region.
However, October’s 2022 Office of National Statistics (ONS) publication highlighted the long-standing question of why despite the issues listed above, Northern Ireland consistently ranks as the UK’s happiest region.
Explanations for why NI is consistently the UK’s happiest region have escaped attention. Reading the ONS publication at face value, if you live in the Greater London area, you will be happiest living in Mid-Ulster. Accordingly, property and tourism operators have been quick to make light of the ONS’s annual publications when promoting NI.
Yet, when accounting for why NI tops the chart for happiness, such explanations quickly fall into a form of exceptionalism. For instance, McKay property accounts NI’s happiness to “beautiful regions, dramatic coastlines, castles, landmarks and mountains” (MacKay Property)
Given that NI is not alone in these islands in benefiting from beautiful landscapes, this LGIU blog post looks at some of the possible drivers to understand what makes NI the happiest place to live in the UK.
Each year the ONS collects and compiles personal well-being data in the UK. The annual well-being publication by the ONS is the result of a push by former Prime Minister David Cameron. With a sample size of 150 000, personal well-being is assessed through four measures: Life satisfaction, feeling the things done in life are Worthwhile, Happiness, and Anxiety.
Ranked on an 11-point scale, NI continuously holds the highest personal well-being ratings when compared to other constituent countries of the UK (apart from the year 2018/19 when anxiety increased).
However, with the UK’s lowest economic productivity and disposable income, the Nevin economic research institute remarks that “on just about any other economic or social indicator of our well-being you tend to find Northern Ireland ranking poorly relative to the UK”
This explains why Annie Quick, who leads inequality and well-being work at the New Economics Foundation, remarked that, “Northern Ireland is really interesting: if you go to Northern Ireland and talk to them, they are very surprised. We don’t have the answer.”
Therefore, this blog explores four reasons for why NI’s well-being ranks so highly.
1- The dividends of peace?
When NI ranked highest for happiness in 2013/14, the ONS co-author remarked it could be “down to how life is going there now compared with 15 years ago”.
In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement set in motion a peace process that espoused rhetoric of peace dividends and a new shared future.
Figure 1: Fatalities due to the security situation, 1990-2021
Figure 1 illustrates the core benefit of the GFA – a transformation in NI’s security situation.
Through paramilitary disarmament, demilitarisation and policing reforms, the people of NI have been able to enjoy day to day life without routine security fears.
Moreover, new power-sharing institutions, equality reforms and funding for cross-community relations presented another wholescale change. Encapsulating this optimism was the unforeseen working relationship between the nationalist former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and the Unionist First Minister Ian Paisley Snr. Labelled as the “Chuckle Brothers” for their friendly working relationship, the transformation that the GFA brought is why in 2021, 65% of respondents to the NILT survey viewed the GFA as the best basis for governing NI.
However, there is no clear correlation between the peace process to NI’s regional well-being. Crucially, the dividends of peace are not clear-cut. Paramilitaries remain a feature of life across NI. Serious unrest in 2012-13, and more recent rioting in 2021, as well as this timeline of dissident republican violence, provides a depressing read of what the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee terms, the “intent and capability (of paramilitaries) to cause serious damage”.
Moreover, political instability characterises NI’s post-1998 institutions. Sitting only 40% of the time, periodic breakdowns in Stormont mean that current debates over the NI Protocol have left NI’s political parties and institutions lacking substantial trust.
Preventing the much needed public reforms, NI’s NHS waiting times are the worst in the United Kingdom and amongst some of the worst in Europe during the pandemic. With more people lost to suicide in the past 17 years than were killed during 30 years of conflict, comparatively, NI has the highest suicide rate in the UK at 16.4 per 100,000 population compared to 10.3 in England.
Therefore, demonstrating that the peace process has not delivered the dividends expected, NI’s public policy think tank Pivotal found that political instability, poor community relations and better job opportunities elsewhere explain why emigration remains a key choice for NI’s younger generations.
2- Social capital
The central idea of social capital is that people benefit by being a part of interactive networks – whether they are networks of friendship, neighbourhood or interest.
In NI, religion, family, and community-based sports provide powerful networks for interaction. For instance, whereas church attendance in England sits around 5-6%, in NI, 32% attend a church meeting/service once or more a week.
However, social networks in NI exist largely within the two religious communities. It is difficult to view NI’s social capital as high, given the physical barriers preventing NI’s two largest communities from interacting. In education, 93% of schools remained segregated by religion. In housing and communities, 97 peace walls tower over communities and prevent interaction, and over 90% of social housing remains religiously segregated.
Therefore, whilst religion, family, and sports present strong drivers of social capital, the continued segregation of the two communities disputes the idea that social capital is the driver behind NI’s happiness.
3- A marked difference from the Republic of Ireland?
Comparative analysis offers the opportunity to deduce similarities/differences to explain NI’s puzzlingly-high wellbeing. Especially given that it is hard to imagine that the North-South border presents an obstacle to the drivers of NI’s well-being.
The Irish Government’s Well-Being framework confirms this. Consistently rated as above the EU average in life-satisfaction, in 2018 Ireland had the highest proportion of adults who rated their overall life satisfaction as high (9 or 10 out of 10) in 2018.
However, unlike NI, explaining the Republic of Ireland’s high levels of life satisfaction is relatively more straightforward. Looking comparatively across the island, Professor John Doyle outlines the main differences in living standards, with the Republic of Ireland out matching NI when it comes to enrolments in secondary education, disposable household income, and risks of poverty.
Whilst debates over living standards between the North and South are now caught up in the vexed constitutional debate surrounding Irish unity, the OECD’s Better Index framework accounts for Ireland’s high levels of life satisfaction to the above OECD averages for job employment, life expectancy and social capitals. For instance, 96% of people believe that they know someone they could rely on in time of need.
Therefore, comparative analysis between NI’s and the Republic’s well-being further muddies the water. Both exhibit high levels of wellbeing, yet there are clear socio-economic drivers for the Republic’s high levels of well-being.
4- Methodological issues
A final explanation of NI’s happiness concerns the methodology used by the ONS.
Regarding the accuracy and reliability of the ONS data, the Northern Ireland Social Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) also collects data on NI’s well-being. Adopting the same indicators for well-being as the ONS, NISRA commented that the well-being results were broadly similar, as
“A comparative analysis of overlapping confidence intervals showed that there were no significant differences observed between the two outputs.”
However, a broader methodological issue concerns the relevance of the indicators used. NISRA acknowledges this by summarising that “well-being is personal and subjective ”. This is why Fact Check NI rated the claim that NI is the UK’s happiest region as unsubstantiated.
Nonetheless, the overlapping results from the ONS and NISRA, as well as the lack of better indicators, means that it is fair to conclude that NI indeed holds a high level of well-being.
To conclude, none of the above explanations presents a determining answer for NI’s perplexing high levels of well-being. The 2021 dataset from NISRA presents an endless list of explanatory variables, from high levels of car ownership to the size of households, to internet access.
Instead, the best answer might be more nuanced; well-being in NI is high due to a number of factors, but the degree of accuracy for NI’s well-being results means that regional comparisons hold less weight.