A leading academic has warned that the cost-of-living crisis in Northern Ireland is driving people to the brink of suicide, with fears that 25,000 more households could face poverty this winter.
Dr Ciara Fitzpatrick from Ulster University has said the issue is “exacerbating our long-running mental health crisis” and hit out at the region’s non-functioning Executive.
Yesterday, several hundred people including Dr Fitzpatrick, an anti-poverty campaigner, protested outside Stormont where the Democratic Unionist Party is continuing its boycott in a row over the post-Brexit agreement. The academic told the Sunday Independent she feared people will die if help is not provided and power-sharing does not return.
She said: “I have spoken to women who, only for their children, would find it difficult to find reasons to continue the daily struggle of trying and failing to meet the cost of essential things that provide a measure of dignity to an individual’s life.
“I find it hard to fathom that children are going hungry, while hundreds of millions of pounds accumulate, unspent by the Executive.
“The DUP is fixated on the ideological and constitutional impact of the protocol and is overlooking the reality of life for many families at the moment,” she said.
A recent study by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research suggested that Northern Ireland could see 25,000 more destitute households as inflation continues to rise. Some economic forecasts suggest it may peak at around 11pc come the autumn.
A list compiled by a Belfast charity and shared online shows the type of items urgently required by people in a small area of North Belfast: items include bed-bases for families currently sleeping on mattresses, and money to buy food and pay electricity and gas bills for a woman who is off work
The following stark account of someone in need has also been shared: “No heating since November and no food at present.”
A study by Ulster University shows that in the last quarter of 2021 just over 24pc of households turned their heating down or off to save money.
Dr Fitzpatrick described Stormont as “the metaphorical ivory tower, with many of the inhabitants out of touch with life for the working class”.
“My friend has four kids and can’t make ends meet. She didn’t put any gas on her meter last week and that meant no hot water to bath the kids — instead she was relying on her electricity, which she reckons is burning around £8 a day.
“A local food scheme, which allows her to access discounted groceries is ensuring the kids are just about fed.
“This is the reality for those who are in the deepest poverty, who are destitute. Every day is a survival mission and the stress is becoming too much to handle.”
Dr Alan Stout of the British Medical Association (BMA) in Northern Ireland said “the levels of social stress are huge and are pushing people to the limit”.
“I am very, very concerned. People can get to a point of seeing no way out very quickly. It is of course another example of significant health inequality,” he said.
Alliance MLA Andrew Muir said the UK government agreed and consulted upon delivery on an energy bills support scheme in the spring, but there is still “no sign of progress” in Northern Ireland.
“Increased energy cost pressures will hit critical public services hard; drinking water, wastewater treatment, hospitals, schools and more — all could be affected,” he said.
Speaking yesterday, Sinn Féin MP John Finucane said the DUP “need to stop blocking a government being formed, so that we can do the business — and get the £435m that’s languishing in the Executive bank account spent”.
The DUP did not respond when asked to comment on what it is doing to address the cost-of-living crisis.
Separately, a protest was held at Stormont yesterday over “spiralling costs” in Northern Ireland, with a union umbrella group predicting an increase in pay claims being lodged over the coming weeks.
The Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) said this demonstration was the beginning of a six-month cost-of-living crisis campaign in the run-up to Christmas.
At noon, hundreds of demonstrators assembled at the main gate to Stormont and marched up to Parliament Buildings for the union-led protest.
A rally was held in front of Parliament Buildings, where people spoke about how the soaring cost of living is affecting workers and their families, and called for the Stormont Executive to be restored to tackle the crisis.
Assistant general secretary of the ICTU Owen Reidy said wages and state supports had already been behind where they needed to be — before the inflation crisis hit.
He said: “Forget about this year, over the last decade wages have fallen behind in Northern Ireland.
"If you look at inflation in the Republic, it’s about 7pc — but it’s about 9.1pc across the UK and they reckon it’s going to go to about 11.1pc before the year is out.
“Teachers, civil servants, other public sector workers are going to be lodging pay claims over the next number of weeks and months, and private sector workers are trying to bargain with their employers.
“But in some cases, employers have their hands tied behind their backs, because there’s no state support and we need to see that state intervention as well.
“But again, you have to have a government in Westminster that cares and is interested. And quite frankly, they’re not. And you have to have an Executive that’s able to respond.
“Things are bad enough in the summer — what’s it going to be like in the autumn and winter?”
Sinn Féin secured a historic victory in last month’s Assembly elections, emerging as the largest party in Northern Ireland for the first time.
However, the DUP has blocked attempts to restore the power-sharing Stormont Assembly or to form an Executive — in protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol, which has created a trade border in the Irish Sea in order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party have criticised the DUP for its protest stance, arguing that it prevents MLAs from taking action on the cost-of-living crisis and other issues, such as long waiting lists for healthcare.
Speaking after Stormont’s main parties met to discuss what a potential programme for government might look like if power-sharing returns, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill was strident.
“The reality is that the DUP’s blockage of the Executive is preventing us from being able to agree a budget and preventing departments from being able to plan for what is going to be a very, very difficult period ahead,” she said.
“The winter months are going to be probably the most challenging the people have ever seen, in terms of the cost-of-living crisis.”
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has argued that the protocol is “pushing up the cost of living for people here and restricting choice on the shelves”.#