Glaring gaps between North and South in productivity, education and qualifications, says ESRI

State’s leading economic think tank also says perception of North’s healthcare system being more efficient does not stand up to data

There are glaring gaps between the Republic and Northern Ireland in productivity, education, qualifications and even life expectancy, research experts from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) have told an Oireachtas committee.

In addition, the perception that the National Health Service in the North is superior to health services in the Republic does not stand up to scrutiny, with significant waiting lists evident in that jurisdiction.

Appearing at the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement this week, ESRI chief executive Alan Barrett and two senior colleagues, Adele Bergin and Seamus McGuinness, told the committee there was an emerging body of research pointing to the existence of substantial gaps in income and living standards between both jurisdictions.

In his opening statement, Prof Barrett referred to gross national income being 51 per cent higher per capita in the State in 2018, than gross domestic product per capita in Northern Ireland. He also said life expectancy in the Republic exceeded that in the North by 1.4 years.


Dr Bergin said there had been a continuous and growing divergence of productivity between the two jurisdictions over the past two decades, moving from roughly equal in 2000 to a 40 per cent gap by 2020.

“While productivity levels were broadly similar in 2000, over the period 2001 to 2020 productivity in Ireland increased by 0.2 per cent annually and fell by 1.1 per cent annually in Northern Ireland. By 2020, productivity levels were approximately 40 per cent higher in Ireland compared to Northern Ireland.” The committee was also told that early school leaving is two to three times higher in Northern Ireland compared with the Republic and this gap has widened over time.

“The proportion of those aged between 16 and 24 who leave school with at most a lower secondary qualification is 14 per cent in Northern Ireland compared to 6 per cent in the Republic.

“This is concerning as early school leavers are more likely to be non-employed or work in low wage and potentially insecure jobs later in life. At all levels of qualification, wages are around 40 per cent higher in Ireland than in Northern Ireland.”

Prof Barrett also said social class was a much stronger predictor of educational failure in the North and the ongoing use of academic selection was likely to strengthen this adverse effect.

“During the course of extensive interviews and workshops with key stakeholders in both jurisdictions, there was a strong consensus that continued academic selection was generally damaging to social progression through education in Northern Ireland.”

He said the Deis programme (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) was thought to have been very effective in lowering social inequalities and improving the outcomes of children from lower-income groups.

Elaborating on that point, Dr Bergin said that only 10 per cent of people in the North had a post-secondary school qualification that was not a third-level qualification. In the Republic these are typically post-Leaving Certificate (plc) course qualifications and an estimated 30 per cent of people hold these certificates.

“What is happening in [the Republic] is that further education status is being improved ... The pathways [to employment] can be seen much more clearly than in Northern Ireland,” she said.

The committee, chaired by Fine Gael TD Fergal O’Dowd, also discussed the question of the subvention paid by the UK government to Northern Ireland and its status if the jurisdictions were unified.

Dr McGuinness pointed out that subvention would no longer be as much of an issue if productivity was increased in Northern Ireland. Earlier, Prof Barrett said lower productivity did not mean people were working less, rather the jobs being created in the North tended to be of a lower-productivity nature.

The bigger issue, said Dr McGuinness, was pensions. He said that national insurance in the UK funded current pensions but gave no guarantee to people that they would be paid a pension in the future. He said that was a key issue.

On healthcare, Prof Barrett said there were more similarities between the two systems than was perceived. He said that between 1.5 million and 2.5 million people in the Republic had medical cards and had free access to healthcare.

“Sometimes we exaggerate differences across the two systems,” he said.

Dr Bergin said both healthcare systems were poor performers when compared with other countries in the OECD.

She said there were gaps between services in Northern Ireland and other regions in the UK.

On waiting lists, she said Northern Ireland had “pulled away massively from the south and from the rest of the UK”.

She said the perception of its standing “did not stand up to the data”.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times