Quality of Life in Ireland – a comparison

Who is Better Off – the Irish, the Northern Irish, or the British?: A regional economic comparison



Northern Ireland is one of the two economically weakest regions of the UK, alongside the North East of England. By contrast, the Republic of Ireland has one of the most dynamic economies in the European Union. But that in itself does not mean that an individual citizen in Northern Ireland is necessarily worse off than a citizen in the Republic of Ireland.


Average pay is higher in RoI than NI, but so are living costs. Some NI living costs are lower than those in GB, but some (such as groceries) are higher. Average pay is significantly lower in NI than in GB and nominal pay is growing slower in NI than in GB, while cost inflation is increasing faster in NI than in GB. The cost of living crisis is more painful in NI than in either GB or RoI – where pay is rising faster than in NI, while inflation is not growing as fast as in the UK.


Some of these changes are the result of Brexit, which is changing the economic environment in the UK. Whether Brexit permanently damages the UK is a contentious question, but on current trends it seems likely that the RoI economy will expand at a much faster rate than that in the UK. Whether NI continues to be mitigated from the Brexit damage will depend on the workings of the NI Protocol and the Windsor Framework. NI may even benefit from Brexit, by attracting investment through its dual market access to the UK Internal Market and EU Single Market.


The immediate answer to the question of whether a citizen is financially better-off in RoI, NI or GB depends on their personal circumstances. Current trends favour the prospects of RoI compared to both GB and NI, but there is no certainty over the continuation of those trends. The UK has specific challenges related to the impact of recent years of austerity, as well as Brexit. But even prior to austerity, the UK was marked by greater inequality than in other advanced European economies and lower payment rates for state pensions and welfare benefits. RoI has higher payment rates for pensions and benefits and lower inequality. NI has an even lower rate of inequality, reflecting the lack of very high earners residing in NI.


It should be noted that comparisons between RoI and NI/UK are impeded by differences in the collection and presentation of statistics.


This paper draws heavily on previous reports from ARINS and ESRI; in particular ‘Who is Better off? Measuring Cross-border Differences in Living Standards, Opportunities and Quality of Life on the Island of Ireland’, Bergin & McGuinness; ‘Social Security in a Unified Ireland’, Tomlinson; ‘The Political Economy of a Northern Ireland Border Poll’, McGuinness & Bergin; ‘A North-South comparison of education and training systems: lessons for policy’, Smyth, Devlin, Bergin & McGuinness; ‘Early Childhood Education and Care in Ireland and Northern Ireland’, Curristan, McGinnity, Russell & Smyth; and ‘An Analysis of the Primary Care Systems of Ireland and Northern Ireland’, Connolly, Brick, O’Neill and O’Callaghan. Reading this collection of papers provides a coherent perspective on economic and social issues related to the constitutional future of the island of Ireland.


Comparing incomes in NI and RoI is problematic. While the Northern Ireland statistical agency (NISRA) and the UK’s Office for National Statistics report median pay, the RoI statistical body (CSO) reports mean averages. Comparisons therefore rely on third party bodies, some of which may be unreliable, and also by making interpretations of official statistics. Despite this, it is clear that incomes tend to be higher in RoI than in either NI or the UK as a whole, with the exception that the very highest pay levels are proportionately more common in England – especially in the South East and London.


Median gross weekly FT earnings in NI were £592 (€672) at April 2022 (the most recent published figure). This equates to £30,784 (€34,952) per 52 week year. NI pay is lower than the UK average, which was £640 (€727) per week at April 2022, or £33,280 (€37,786) per 52 week year. NI also had the lowest increase in median weekly earnings of any UK region in 2022 at 2.9%, compared to the UK average of 5.0%.[i] . NI has experienced the lowest growth in nominal wages – both mean and median – of any UK region in recent periods.[ii] The cost of living crisis has therefore had a disproportionately negative impact on workers and residents in Northern Ireland.


NI has the lowest pay of any UK region according to PAYE figures submitted via the RTI system (see table below), some 8.2% lower than the UK median. (These figures differ from national median figures, as they include only staff on the PAYE system and do not include the self employed.) The next lowest pay levels were recorded in the Yorkshire & Humberside region, followed by the North East of England.


Median monthly pay from PAYE RTI by region (excludes Scotland), January 2023:


Northern Ireland                                            £1,989

Yorkshire & Humber                                       £2,008

North East                                                       £2,016

West Midlands                                               £2,046

East Midlands                                                 £2,047

North West                                                     £2,050

Wales                                                              £2,061

UK                                                                   £2,167

East                                                                 £2,236

South East                                                       £2,317

London                                                           £2,621

Source: Table 8, Earnings and employment from PAYE RTI, non-seasonally adjusted, published jointly by ONS and HMRC[iii]


Pay levels in NI have increased at less than the rate of inflation, meaning that they are falling in real terms, and at a lower rate than in GB or RoI. This in part reflects NI’s higher dependence on public sector employment, which has been subject to repeated years of austerity policies. NI’s relative position to GB in terms of pay and household disposable income is therefore declining.


Eurostat provides mean average pay rates for EU member states. In RoI, the mean average weekly earnings were €864.32 (£762) in Quarter 3 of 2022, reflecting a 3.2% increase over the previous year. This equates to a figure of €44,928 (£39,628) over a year.[iv] Among the EU Member States, according to Eurostat, RoI recorded the third highest average annual adjusted full-time salary in 2021 at €50,300 (£44,366). The two highest annual pay levels were recorded in Luxembourg (€72,200) and Denmark (€63,300). The lowest recorded average pay were reported for Bulgaria (€10,300), Hungary (€12,600) and Romania (€13,000).[v]


It is possible to compare RoI and UK median pay using Eurostat statistics for 2016, when the UK remained part of the EU and therefore subject to data comparison by Eurostat. In the 2016 year the median pay for the UK was €14.80 per hour; the figure for RoI was €20.20 per hour. On this basis, median pay in RoI exceeded that in the UK by €5.40 per hour, or 36.48%. Once this is adjusted for purchasing power standard (PPS) this was reported as 12.90 for the UK and 18.40 for RoI,[vi] or 42.6% higher in RoI.


In subsequent years there has been pay inflation in both countries – in the UK this was recorded as being as follows:

2017    2.2%[vii]

2018    3.5%[viii]

2019    2.9%[ix]

2020    0.1%[x]

2021    5.3%[xi]


In the RoI pay inflation was recorded as follows:

2017    2.0%[xii]

2018    3.3%[xiii]

2019    3.6%[xiv]

2020    [0.9%][xv]

2021    5.0%[xvi]


Projecting the hourly pay rates recorded by Eurostat in 2016 into 2021 by adding in subsequent years’ pay inflation provides the following calculation:

UK – €14.80, +2.2% = €15.13; +3.5% =€15.65; +2.9% = €16.11; +0.1% = €16.11; +5.3% = €16.96 in 2021.

RoI – €20.20,+2.0% = €20.60; +3.3% = €21.28; +3.6% = €22.05; -0.9% =€21.85; +5.0% = €22.94 in 2021.


These calculations indicate that hourly pay in 2016 was higher in RoI than in the UK, with the gap narrowing slightly in subsequent years through lower pay growth in RoI than in the UK. The gap at 2021 equates to a 35% advantage in RoI compared to the UK. Given NI pay is 8.2% below the UK median this suggests the hourly median rate in NI was €15.57 in 2021. NISRA reports the male median hourly pay rate at April 2022 as being £13.99 (€16) and the female median hourly pay rate as £12.82 (€14.60) – approximately confirming the calculation. The UK inflation rate has exceeded that of the eurozone since Brexit[xvii], causing the real value of UK pay to decline relative to that of RoI in terms of spending power. The OECD also produces comparative pay data.[xviii] For the 2021 year, it references the mean average pay for the UK as US$50,000 and that for RoI at US$51,045 – a 2% higher mean average pay level in RoI. (OECD data are not entirely consistent with national statistics.)


Incomes for the 1% highest paid are comparable in the UK and RoI. The top 1% of UK earners have incomes above £180,000 a year.[xix] The pay of the top 1% of earners in RoI in 2016 was reported to be €190,000, while that of the UK’s top 1% were earning £170,000 (€193,000) a year.[xx] For the 2016 year, Ireland had the second highest minimum wage rate in the EU, behind only Luxembourg. The UK prior to leaving the EU had the seventh highest minimum wage rate. Both the UK and RoI were significantly above the EU average.[xxi]  While RoI’s wages and salaries costs were above the EU average, they were below those in Denmark, Luxembourg and Belgium.[xxii]

Household disposable income

Household disposable income is the amount of money households have available for spending and saving after direct taxes have been accounted for; it includes earnings from employment, private pensions and investments as well as cash benefits provided by the state.[xxiii] Household disposable income is higher in RoI than in NI, while being lower than that in the UK as a whole. The OECD states that for RoI, “the average household net adjusted disposable income per capita is US$29,488 a year, slightly lower than the OECD average of US$30,490.”[xxiv] In relation to the UK, the OECD reports, “the average household net adjusted disposable income per capita is US$33,049 a year, higher than the OECD average of US$30,490.[xxv]” ONS reports the UK figure as £21,440 per head and that in NI as £17,301 – the lowest of any region in the UK[xxvi] and 19.3% smaller than in the UK as a whole. Reducing the UK figure by 19.3% to provide a figure for NI produces the calculation of US$26,671 – or US$2,817 below that of RoI. A similar conclusion was reached by McGuinness and Devlin, though the figures used differ. They state:Household Disposable Income, per equivalised household, current prices, current PPP (purchasing power parity), based on the 2017 year, equated to US dollars, provides an average of $34,000 per household for RoI and $29,400 for NI. Indicating the RoI households are $4,600 a year better off in gross disposable income terms.”[xxvii]


Household spending (household final consumption) is the amount spent by households to meet everyday needs, such as food, clothing, housing rent, energy, transport, durable goods such as cars, health costs, leisure, etc.[xxviii] McGuinness and Devlin calculated that household spending adjusted for PPS, purchasing power standard, per capita at 2016 was also higher in RoI than in NI, though only marginally. “In RoI in 2016 this was €15,600 in RoI and €15,200 in NI, ie €400 higher in RoI per annum.”[xxix]


Ireland has the highest prices of any EU country for consumer goods and services, according to Eurostat. Luxembourg has the highest price level for food and non-alcoholic beverages, while Denmark is the most expensive for clothing and for footwear. Ireland has the highest price level for alcoholic beverages and tobacco, at 44% above the EU average. Housing costs in Ireland are also the highest of any EU member state.[xxx]


Food and grocery items are more expensive in RoI than in NI or GB. In 2022, food costs (excluding alcohol) were 17.8% more expensive in RoI than the EU average.[xxxi] In 2017 – the final year in which the UK was included in the relevant Eurostat figures – food was 8% less expensive in the UK than the EU average. However, costs in the UK were 17% more expensive than the EU average in terms of household final consumption expenditure (HFCE). RoI was 25% above the EU average in that same year, 2017.[xxxii]


Across the UK there is significant variation in the cost of household items. Despite having the lowest median incomes, NI has one the highest costs for food and non-alcoholic drinks. In the period 2016 to 2018, across the UK the mean average weekly household expenditure was £58.60. The second highest expenditure, behind the high income South East of England, was in Northern Ireland at £63.20, ahead, even, of London at £62.80. The lowest household expenditure was recorded in the North East of England at £51.90. Over the course of a year, the average household in NI would have spent £588 (7.8%) more than the average household in the North East of England.[xxxiii] This is despite median monthly pay for those employed being £27 less in NI than in the North East of England.[xxxiv] It can be assumed that higher logistical costs have a negative impact on prices in Northern Ireland.


Table – average weekly food & non alcohol drinks expenditure by UK country and region


North East                   £51.90

Yorkshire & Humber   £53.00

Wales                          £53.70

Scotland                      £55.00

North West                 £55.70

West Midlands           £56.50

East Midlands             £58.60

UK                               £58.60

England                       £59.10

South West                 £60.60

East of England           £61.70

London                       £62.80

Northern Ireland        £63.20

South East                   £64.20


Source: Detailed household expenditure by countries and regions, financial year ending 2016 to financial year ending 2018, ONS


The cost of buying a house in NI is much lower than in most of GB and very much lower than in RoI. “The average UK house price was £294,000 in December 2022, which is £26,000 higher than 12 months ago. Average house prices increased over the year to £315,000 (10.3%) in England, to £222,000 in Wales (10.3%), to £187,000 in Scotland (5.7%) and to £175,000 in Northern Ireland (10.2%).”[xxxv]


Average house prices by UK region:


North East                               £163,731

Northern Ireland                    £175,234

Scotland                                  £187,224

Yorkshire & Humber               £214,773

North West                             £221,101

Wales                                      £222,402

East Midlands                         £256,159

West Midlands                       £256,206

England                                   £315,119

South West                             £330,601

East of England                       £363,779

South East                               £404,229

London                                   £543,099


Source: UK House Price Index summary: December 2022


Differences in house purchase costs are not reflected in private sector rental costs, which have risen faster in NI than in any GB region. They have risen 9.2% in NI since a baseline of January 2015, which is twice the rate of increase in GB.[xxxvi] In the period October 2020 to September 2021, average monthly private sector rental prices were £755 in England. But variations within England were substantial, with average rental in London being £1,425. The lowest rents in England were in the North East, at £500. A private sector analysis in late 2022 reported average rental in NI to be £742 a month, rising at an annual rate of 7.8%[xxxvii], compared to 4.3% in England.[xxxviii] This underlines the fact that while NI has a lower average income than GB, some core costs for its citizens are above the average for people living in GB. Rental costs are substantially higher in RoI, with the monthly national average at the end of 2022 being €1,733, and the average in South Dublin at €2,564. The cheapest monthly rents are in Co. Leitrum, at €930.[xxxix]


Comparison of official statistics in RoI and the UK show housing costs as a proportion of income as being higher in RoI than in NI or GB, with the exception of London. Prices vary substantially according to location in both UK and RoI. In South Dublin, the proportion of housing costs to income is 33.3%, the highest level in RoI. In Longford, where it is lowest, it is 21.1% of income. The national average in RoI was 29.0% in 2016, which is above the average in GB and NI.[xl] “Private renters on a median household income could expect to spend 26% of their income on a median-priced rented home in England, compared with 23% in both Wales and Northern Ireland, in the financial year ending March 2021. London was the least affordable region with a median rent of £1,430 being equivalent to 40% of median income.”[xli]


Tax rates in the two jurisdictions are difficult to compare as they vary in both rates and thresholds.


England, Wales & NI:


Personal allowance, 0% tax rate to £12,570

Basic rate, 20%, £12,571 to £50,270

Higher rate, 40%, £50,271 to £150,000

Additional rate, 45%, over £150,000




Personal allowance, 0% tax rate to £12,570

Starter rate, 19%, £12,571 to £14,732

Basic rate, 20%, £14,733 to £25,688

Intermediate rate, 21%, £25,689 to £43,662

Higher rate, 41%, £43,663 to £150,000

Top rate, 46%, over £150,000




For single person:


20% tax rate until €40,000 PA

40% tax rate above that


For couple:

20% tax rate until €49,000 PA

40% tax rate above that


For one parent family:

20% tax rate until €44,000 PA


A Universal Social Charge is payable on gross income above €13,000:


0.5%, up to €12,012

2%, €12,012.01 to €22,920

4.5%, €22,920.01 to €70,044

8%, €70,044.01 and over

11%, self-employed income above €100,000


Reduced rate USC:


0.5%, up to €12,012

2%, above €12,012


Comparisons between the systems are difficult. Tomlinson explains: “The south has lower insurance contributions but higher income tax from the 70th percentile upwards. At the 80th percentile an employee is paying €46 per week more in income tax under the Irish system. These differences are moderated to some extent by the impact of the universal social charge (USC). Nevertheless, taking insurance contributions, income tax and USC together, the north’s employees are between €12.30 and €19.80 better off per week on all incomes up to the 70th percentile under the Irish tax code…. Childless single people are better off under the Irish tax code at two-thirds of average wages but worse off at 167 per cent of average wages than under the British code. For couples with or without children, the two codes have similar rates of deduction where both are in work to some extent; but where one person only is working, the deduction is significantly lower in the Irish case (14.0 versus 22.7 per cent).”[xlii]


Matters are further complicated by differences in tax reliefs and allowances. “From an employee perspective, the overall differences between the Irish and British tax codes (including social insurance) are not great. The south has lower insurance contributions but higher income tax + USC deductions over most of the income range. Overall, most employees in the north on low and middle incomes would be better off under the south’s PAYE system.”[xliii]

Pensions and benefits

The UK is an outlier in terms of advanced European economies in its comparatively low rates of payment for pensions and benefits. Pensioner poverty is a significantly bigger problem in the UK than in RoI. In the year 2019, pensioner poverty afflicted 15.5% of the UK population over age 66. The comparable figure for RoI was 6.8%.[xliv] In both the UK (including NI) and RoI the state pension entitlement is related to the number of contributions made during a person’s working life. In RoI, the state pension is payable from age 66, subject to contributions having been paid. It is not means tested. The maximum personal state retirement pension in RoI is €265.30 (£236.89). A recipient may also be entitled to receive an increase in respect of a qualified adult (eg a spouse) to a possible maximum of €237.80 (£212.30), but this is subject to means testing.


In the UK, the state pension qualifying age is 66, with the intention of increasing it in stages to 67 and 68. (A similar increase is likely in RoI.) At present, the full state pension is payable at £203.85 (€228.25) in April 2023. There is no longer an enhancement for a spouse, but a person may be entitled to a means-tested benefit, according to circumstances.[xlv]


For a single person, an Irish state pension (subject to contributions) is worth around £1,500 (€1,680) a year more than a UK state pension. The age of onset of entitlement is currently the same and may continue to operate roughly in tandem.


The British system is unusual in its expectation that individuals should rely, to a significant extent, on an occupational or private pension. A comparison of state pension entitlements shows the UK to be the least generous of major European nations, with the exception of the Netherlands and Switzerland – both of which have higher average occupational/private pension entitlements. When occupational and state pension average entitlements are combined, the UK average total pension entitlements are comparable to the OECD average.


Comparing the welfare benefits system north and south, the amounts payable and the period for which benefits are paid is complex and superficial analysis is unreliable. It is, though, notable, that the devolved government in NI spends more capita on welfare support payments than the other UK administrations, with mitigations introduced to avoid some of the impacts of austerity imposed by the UK government and implemented in GB. Despite this, the support for people in deprivation tends to be greater in RoI than in NI or the rest of the UK.


People in NI who are unemployed may be entitled to the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). For a single person under 25, entitlement is for up to £61.05 per week. For a person over 25, the amounts is £77 a week. A person who is disabled may be entitled to a Personal Independence Payment (which replaced the Disabled Living Allowance). Pip is payable at a basic weekly rate of £61.85, or an enhanced weekly rate of £92.40. A person eligible for an additional payment in recognition of mobility problems may be entitled to a standard weekly rate of £24.45, or an enhanced weekly rate of £64.50. Statutory Maternity Pay is payable for up to 39 weeks at 90% of a person’s average weekly earnings (before tax) for the first six weeks and at £156.66 or 90% of the average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for the next 33 weeks.


People in RoI who are unemployed may be entitled to Jobseeker’s Benefit, which is payable for nine months (234 days) for people with sufficient contributions, or for six months (156 days) for those who do not meet the contributions test. A full weekly payment is €220; an additional €146 is payable for an adult dependent; and €42 for a dependent child under 12, or €50 for a dependent child over 12. People who are sick may be entitled to Illness Benefit. The amount payable is on a sliding scale of €98.70 to €220, dependent on average pay. Additional payment for adult dependents is on a sliding scale from €94.50 to €146. Invalidity pension is available for people who are disabled or on long term sick. The maximum personal rate is €225.50; an increase in relation to an adult dependent is payable at €161.10; and for a child under 12 at €42, or for child over 12 at €50.


Maternity Benefit is payable for 26 weeks at a standard payment of €262.


Basic welfare support – NI v RoI

NI                                         RoI


State pension                                                  £185.15                              (£236.89)             (in sterling)

(€207.36)                            €265.30               (in euro)


Unemployment support                               £77.00                                 (£195.42)             (in sterling)

€86.68                                 €220.00               (in euro)


Disability support                                           £92.40                                 £200.31               (in sterling)

(€104.02)                            (€225.50)            (in euro)


Maternity pay                                                 £156.66                              (£232.73)             (in sterling)

(€176.36)                            €262.00               (in euro)



Variations in housing support make comparisons more complicated: both systems operate in relation to localised market costs. But in general the UK system of welfare support is less generous than in other advanced economies in Europe, including Ireland. A 2015 TUC report observed: “Income protection contingent on unemployment in the UK is strikingly weak compared to most comparator nations. This is the case whether we are comparing incomes for insured workers or those reliant on minimum income benefits, whether or not we include housing costs and benefits in the comparison and whether we are comparing the UK with earnings-related benefit systems or other flat-rate systems. Unemployment benefits have a quite exceptionally low priority within the UK social security system.”[xlvi]




The UK is highly unequal by European standards. Northern Ireland is the least unequal nation within the UK. According to a report from NICVA, NI’s comparative equality is the result of it containing fewer people on the very highest pay rates[xlvii] – despite it also having a specific problem of low pay. The Gini coefficient shows NI to be less unequal than RoI, presumably again because of the small number of recipients of the very highest pay rates.[xlviii] RoI is a less unequal country in terms of household income distribution. Some 18.6% of the UK’s population lives below the internationally recognised poverty line, which is much higher than the 13.1% of Ireland’s population.[xlix] The Joseph Rowntree Trust reports the figure for Northern Ireland as 18%.[l] The highest earning 10% of households in the UK generate 31.1% of total national income, whereas the figure for RoI is 27.2%. Conversely, the lowest earning 10% in the UK generate 1.7% of total national income, compared to 2.9% in Ireland.[li]


The proportion of jobs in NI that are low paid fell to around 13% in 2022, which is the lowest in two decades, but is the third highest proportion of UK regions. The proportion of jobs paid below the National Living Wage (NLW) and National Minimum Wage (NMW), was 2.0% in 2022. The introduction of the National Living Wage in 2016 had significant benefits for low waged workers in NI, in terms of the reduced proportion of workers on very low pay levels.[lii]


The highest income growth in NI since the Great Recession has been amongst the lowest paid who are in employment. The lowest income growth has been for those reliant on benefits, according to analysis from the Nevin Economic Research Institute.[liii] The real value of welfare benefits, including for unemployment, in the UK are unusually low for an advanced economy.[liv] Despite a comparative improvement, households reliant on low incomes have little disposable income according to the NI Consumer Council. “Northern Ireland’s lowest earning households have been left with only £29 per week….. As the cost of energy, fuel, food, and general household bills increase exponentially around them, with inflation currently at 10.1% [at September 2022] and interest rates rising to 1.75%, many risk being plummeted into desperate circumstances.”[lv]


Low pay is a significant problem amongst young adult workers in Ireland despite its higher minimum pay rate. “Eurostat and OECD data show Ireland to have one of the highest rates of low pay in the EU and certainly in a high-income EU country context….. In recent years Ireland has seen an increase in young people gaining tertiary level qualifications exceeding the EU average by 13%. Human Capital theory would expect this development to put upward pressure on pay and conditions for better qualified young workers. However, the evidence is mixed, suggesting a varied experience for young workers with third level qualifications, even those in full-time employment: just 18% of this group earn over €40k per annum; in addition, a significant portion or 17%, earn less than 20k per annum. This compares to 21% of full-time workers in this age group as a whole.”[lvi]


The gender pay gap is significant in both jurisdictions. “The gender pay gap for all employees (regardless of working pattern) in NI is in favour of males. Median hourly earnings (excluding overtime) for females (£12.82) was 8.4% below those for males (£13.99). This is an increase from the smallest gender pay gap on record in 2021 (4.7%), but is lower than the pre-pandemic rate (10%) and lower than the 15% gap recorded in the UK in the last three years.”


There is a lack of up-to-date official data on the gender pay gap for RoI. “The key source of data on the gender pay gap in Ireland is that published by Eurostat, which is focused on capturing the gender pay gap using mean hourly earnings. It is published annually and it is principally cited by those who are reporting on the size of the gender pay gap across Ireland. The latest available data for the Republic of Ireland from Eurostat is for 2018 where the gap in earnings was 11.3% in favour of males.”[lvii]


Eurostat analysis of EU nations’ gender pay gap for 2016 – when the UK was still part of the EU shows RoI as having a significantly smaller gender pay gap than the UK. The gender pay gap was reported as 13.9% in RoI compared to 21.0% in the UK. The EU average was 16.2%.[lviii] NI’s gender pay gap is therefore lower than in GB or RoI, possibly influenced by the lower proportion of very high wage earners in NI.


Regional disparities are a serious problem in each of the jurisdictions. In the RoI, average pay in Dublin is much higher than elsewhere, with Donegal recording the lowest average pay. In 2020, disposable income per person in Dublin was €27,686, 18% highest than the average and more than 33% higher than that recorded in Donegal.[lix] The UK region with the lowest pay is NI, which recorded a median monthly pay in January 2023 of £2,012, which was 8% less than the UK median of £2,187. London recorded the highest median pay of £2,635, which is 20% higher than the UK median.[lx] The mean averages recorded in RoI and NI cannot be used for a comparison, as the RoI figures are for disposable income, whereas those recorded for NI are gross income.


In December 2022, the mean average monthly pay in the UK was £3,000; that of NI £2,437; that in Lisburn & Castlereagh, £2,766, which was the highest; and that in Derry & Strabane, £2,213, which was the lowest. The NI mean average was 19% below the UK mean average. Lisburn & Castlereagh was 14% above the NI mean average, while Derry & Strabane was 9% below.[lxi]


Across the UK, there is a substantial variation regionally in the distribution of both wealth and income. There has also been a varying impact of austerity and the Covid pandemic across the population, with the wealthiest gaining and the poorest losing. The Equality Trust reported “in 2022, incomes for the poorest 14 million people fell by 7.5%, whilst incomes for the richest fifth saw a 7.8% increase. In 2022, households in the bottom 20% of the population had on average an equivalised disposable income of £13,218, whilst the top 20% had £83,687.”[lxii]


The Equality Trust added: “Wealth in Great Britain is even more unequally divided than income. In 2020, the ONS calculated that the richest 10% of households hold 43% of all wealth. The poorest 50%, by contrast, own just 9%.” That variation also reflects differences in property prices in different parts of GB, with homes and other property assets typically reaching very much higher market prices in the South East of England than the North. The Equality Trust explains: “The South East is the wealthiest of all regions with median household total wealth of £503,400, over twice the amount of wealth in households in the North of England.”[lxiii]

Median household net wealth, UK (excluding NI):

North East                                           £168,500

Scotland                                              £214,000

Yorkshire & Humber                           £214,900

North West                                         £237,500

West Midlands                                   £262,400

East Midlands                                     £262,800

Wales                                                  £275,700

London                                               £340,300

South West                                         £379,900

East of England                                   £398,900

South East                                           £503,400

Source: Median Household Wealth, 2018-20, ONS Wealth and Assets Survey, 2022

(No equivalent data is published for NI)[lxiv]

Median household net wealth, Ireland:

Northern & Western region               €139,900

Southern region                                 €187,500

Eastern & Midlands region                €205,600

Source: Household Finance and Consumption Survey 2018, CSO


Consumer price inflation in recent years has been higher in the UK than in Ireland. Brexit and the devaluation of sterling resulting from Brexit have been factors in this. Prices in Ireland are estimated to have risen by 7.7% in the 12 months to January 2023.[lxv] UK consumer price inflation was 8.8% in the 12 month period ending January 2023.[lxvi]



The economy


Brexit is having a negative economic impact on the UK economy, which is expected to continue into the medium term. While NI has been protected through the mitigated negative impact by the NI Protocol and subsequent Windsor Framework, at present NI also has some negative downsides from Brexit – not least the political uncertainty related to that and the collapse of the administrative arrangements. The Office for Budget Responsibility assesses the ongoing negative impact of Brexit on UK exports and imports at 15%.[lxviii] The Centre for European Reform (CER) calculates that UK GDP fell by 5.5% as a result of Brexit, with investment falling by 11%.[lxix]


These macro economic impacts affect personal incomes. CER’s analysis estimates that the UK lost £40bn in tax revenues resulting from Brexit: the effects of this will be felt in various, unspecifiable ways, in terms of government expenditure, which may include spending on capital investment, the NHS, education and skills, as well as personal financial support in terms of lost opportunities to cut tax rates and increase welfare benefits. Economic analysis from the Resolution Foundation estimates the continuing negative impact of Brexit to equate to lower wages of £470 per person in the UK annually, as well as a 1.3% fall in productivity. A paper from Haskel, Springford and Dhingra goes further, calculating the negative impact of Brexit on the UK economy annually at £29bn, or around £1,000 per household.[lxx]


Economic prospects for the UK are weak compared to competitor nations. The IMF predicts UK economic output to fall by 0.3% in 2023, the worst economic performance of any major nation this year and followed by growth of a mere 1% in 2024.[lxxi] The OECD predicts a UK recession of 0.4% in 2023, followed by modest growth of 0.2% in 2024.[lxxii] Whether NI is subject to comparable difficulties depends on the impact of the Protocol/Windsor Framework and political developments, but there have been signs that NI has been less badly affected by Brexit than has GB – not least, because of increased cross-border trade between NI and RoI.[lxxiii]


Economic forecasts for RoI are much more positive than for the UK. The European Commission predicts that the RoI economy will grow 4.9% in 2023 and by 4.1% in 2023.[lxxiv] The OECD projection is for growth of 3.8% in 2023 and 3.3% in 2024.[lxxv] The IMF forecasts growth of 4.0% in 2023.[lxxvi] If these economic forecasts from the major global institutions are correct, the effect on incomes and on government tax revenues appear much more favourable in RoI than in GB, while there is significant uncertainty in relation to the situation in NI.


Economic growth in the UK had already slowed in recent years, a phenomenon many economists regard as pre-dating Brexit and related to underlying underinvestment in the economy, resulting in a lack of improvement in productivity. NI significantly underperforms productivity rates across the UK as a whole, and even more in comparison with RoI.


Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that the UK’s productivity performance is not evenly spread across the country. London and the South East have the highest productivity, followed by Scotland. But Wales and most regions of England lag behind with a substantial productivity gap. In comparison, Northern Ireland has the lowest productivity of any UK region. When measured by GVA (or ‘gross value added’) per hour worked, productivity in Northern Ireland is almost 20% lower than the UK average….. Northern Ireland’s low levels of skills have important implications for both productivity and wider economic performance….. A shortage of skilled labour has been highlighted as holding back Northern Ireland’s future growth prospects.”[lxxvii]


There are significant differences within NI with regard to economic productivity, as measured by GVA per filled job. In the 2020 year (the most recent available), this was recorded as follows:


Derry City & Strabane                        £44,000

Causeway Coast & Glens                    £46,572

Armagh, Banbridge, Craigavon          £47,555

Fermanagh & Omagh                         £47,906

Ards & North Down                            £48,204

Newry, Mourne & Down                    £48,700

Mid & East Antrim                              £48,769

Antrim & Newtownabbey                  £49,226

Lisburn & Castlereagh                        £50,625

Mid Ulster                                           £52,624

Belfast                                                 £55,289

UK average                                         £58,054


Source: Subregional productivity: labour productivity indices by local authority district, 2020, ONS [lxxviii]


NI’s productivity gap with RoI is even larger than it is with GB. “Northern Ireland has the worst productivity performance of any region in the UK. The most recent data shows productivity in Northern Ireland is 17% below the UK average. It also lags behind the Republic of Ireland, where productivity is around 29% higher than the UK average.”[lxxix] [lxxx] There are also significant variations in productivity across regions within the RoI, as the Nevin Economic Research Institute has pointed out in its comparison across all regions in the island of Ireland.[lxxxi]



Economic activity in NI has been much weaker over that period and very uneven. NISRA reported: “Economic activity had increased gradually in recent years (2013-2019) until the onset of the pandemic, following the prolonged downturn post 2007. During the pandemic the NICEI [the NI Composite Economic Index] reached a series low in Q2 2020, however economic activity post pandemic has recovered substantially and is now 25.7% above this series low point. More recently, the post pandemic recovery has diminished somewhat with the indices recording negative quarterly change in 3 out of the last 8 quarters.”[lxxxii]


NISRA also observed that NI underperformed in terms of the recovery compared to the UK as a whole: “Economic Activity in Northern Ireland decreased by 0.3% in real terms over the quarter to Q3 2022. Compared to the same quarter last year, NI’s output has increased by 0.5% and is now 4.1% above pre-pandemic levels seen in Q3 2019 (triennial change). When assessing annualised change, NI output has increased by 4.0%. Although the measures are not produced on a fully equivalent basis, decreased by 0.3% over the quarter, however it increased by 1.9% over the year to Quarter 3 2022. UK GDP is now -0.8% below pre-pandemic levels seen in Q3 2019. Over the same timeframe, GDP in UK Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased by 2.3% over the quarter, 10.6% over the year and 34.7% over the last three years to Quarter 3 2022.”[lxxxiii]


There is greater volatility in terms of economic activity in NI than in the UK as a whole. “Over the last 10 years, the UK has reported a decline in GDP in 5 of the last 40 quarters, whereas the NICEI has reported contraction in economic activity in 14 of the last 40 quarters. Over the last 2 years, the UK, Scotland and NI have experienced similar trends in economic activity. The UK and Scotland have experienced negative change in 2 of the last 8 quarters and NI has experienced negative change in 3 of the last 8 quarters.”[lxxxiv]


While RoI has dramatically outperformed NI and GB in terms of GDP growth, it would be wrong to place much significance on the GDP figures for RoI as these are generally recognised to be misleading because of the scale and impact of international investment and its impact.




Northern Ireland outperforms both the UK and RoI in terms of its low official unemployment rate. The UK’s unemployment rate is 3.7% (September to November 2022)[lxxxv], which compares unfavourably to the official Northern Ireland figure of 3.1% (January 2023). The figure in the RoI was 4.4% (January 2023).[lxxxvi] There are several caveats in terms of the reliability and significance of these figures. In all three jurisdictions there are substantial regional variations. In NI, the lowest unemployment rate was recorded in the affluent Lisburn and Castlereagh council area at just 1.9%, in contrast to the highest unemployment rate of 4.8% in the Derry and Strabane council area. In GB, the lowest unemployment rate is 2.1% in the South West and the highest rate is 4.5% in London and also in the North East of England. It is 3.3% in Scotland and 3.5% in Wales.[lxxxvii]


Secondly, the criteria for inclusion as being unemployment varies between the UK and RoI. Significant numbers of people are classified in the UK as economically inactive rather than unemployed, many of whom would like to be working but are regarded as unavailable for work for reasons such as ill health, disability, or family caring responsibilities. More generous childcare support would enable more parents to work, while more inclusive support for adults with disabilities would potentially enable more people with disabilities to work, and more of those who support them as carers also to work.


Arguably, the employment rate provides a more useful evaluation of the state of the labour market in the various jurisdictions. This provides a rebalancing of the comparison between NI and the rest of the UK, which is perhaps a more accurate reflection. The employment rate (Sep – Nov 2022) in the UK as a whole was 75.6%, which is significantly higher than the figure for NI of 71.3% in the same period. Economic inactivity levels in NI are very much higher than those in GB. The employment rate in RoI (third quarter 2022) at 73.2% is lower than in GB, but higher than that in NI.


It should be noted that it is argued that the RoI rate reflects its more dynamic and less public sector oriented economy compared to both GB and NI. This is said to generate a higher level of employment churn and short term unemployment. As one analysis explains, “the sectoral composition of employment in NI and higher dependence on public sector employment results in more stable employment and unemployment rates [than in the Republic].”[lxxxviii]


Economic inactivity rates vary substantially between different countries and regions. The UK rate is 21.5% for the September to November 2022 quarter, whereas the NI rate is much higher at 26.6%.[lxxxix] Ireland’s Central Statistics Office does not produce directly comparable economic inactivity figures. Data published by the OECD record Ireland’s economic inactivity rate at 23.8% in Q3 2022, placing it between the UK and RoI rates.[xc]


Examination of the economic inactivity rates provides some interesting information. Specifically, Covid has had an impact on economic inactivity and the number of people who have dropped out of the labour market – but the demography of those who have become removed from the labour market varies according to jurisdiction. A much smaller proportion of workers have left the labour market in GB during Covid than has been the case in NI. “This would imply a much larger impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on economic activity and the labour market in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom.”[xci]


NERI points to a much greater rise in economic inactivity during the pandemic in NI than in GB. “This was driven by growth in the proportion of working age adults who are inactive due to sickness or disability and, to a lesser extent, by increases in the proportion of working age adults who are students…. rates of inactivity on grounds of sickness or disability in Northern Ireland were already much higher than the rest of the UK”. This analysis also points to the younger population age of NI compared to the UK as a whole generating a higher proportion of young adults who are economically inactive because they are students. The same report adds: “Inactivity on grounds of caring responsibilities – while proportionally lower than in other regions – remains an area of concern in Northern Ireland, particularly given the levels of poverty.”[xcii]


“In GB, it is older workers – 50 to 64 age group – that have dropped out of the labour market to become economically inactive, indicating many have taken early retirement. By contrast, in NI the age range is broader, indicating a significantly different profile of individuals who become economically inactive, including amongst younger adults, as well as affecting a proportionately larger group of people.”[xciii]


Cost and quality of public services


Once the private and state expenditure per person is added together, total expenditure per capita is higher in NI than in RoI. Based on 2016 figures, spend per person in RoI was €21,200, compared to €21,900 in NI – an additional €700 per person, per year.[xciv] This, of course, does not address the question of value for money in terms of the quality of public service provision.


In some key regards – such as schooling, further and higher education and childcare – RoI outperforms NI in outcomes, despite NI’s higher level of public sector expenditure.


Health services – North and South


The future of health services in RoI, NI and GB are highly politically controversial. In GB, concern about health workers pay, growing waiting lists and difficulties in obtaining appointments with GPs look likely to be a significant item of debate in the next General Election. In NI, the quality of service from its version of the NHS is very poor and much below the standard available in England, Scotland or Wales (it is a devolved function, administered by the national governments, with variations in policy and outcomes as a result). Despite this, the free at point of service commitment by the NHS in NI is frequently cited as a strong advantage of NI’s membership of the UK and would be a key point of discussion in the event of a constitutional referendum. One increasingly raised question is whether that benefit remains in place when the service has – in the case of many patients – already collapsed, or is on the verge of collapse because of the extremely long waiting times for consultation and treatment.


Health services in both NI and RoI have serious challenges, which pre-date Covid but which were greatly increased by the pandemic. NI had very substantially longer waiting times and waiting lists for chronic conditions than was the case in GB [i]. The Pivotal think-tank reported:

“In March [2019], there were 1,154 people waiting over a year for planned care in England. In Wales that number was 4,176. In Northern Ireland, it was 120,201.”[xcv]


The situation is significantly worse since the Pivotal report was published. Figures published in September 2021 recorded that there were then over 188,000 patients waiting more than a year on waiting lists for their first outpatient appointment. There is at present a seven year waiting list for a patient to be seen for a first consultation by a consultant neurologist after referral by their GP. The official target is just nine weeks.[xcvi] A judicial review that considered the long NHS waiting lists in Northern Ireland heard evidence that the system at present is ‘not fit for purpose’.[xcvii] An increasing number of patients in NI are now paying for treatment, either directly or else through membership of private health insurance schemes.


There is also a worsening problem in NI with access to GP services and appointments. A number of GP practices are ‘handing back’, resigning, their service contracts, potentially leaving patients without a GP service. Other GP practices are reportedly reluctant to accept transfers of patients into their practices, or in some instances are refusing to do so. This process has led to higher demand and waiting times to access a GP in NI. Anecdotally, it is common to have to wait two weeks to obtain a non-urgent appointment with a GP. This would be consistent with the situation across the UK: a survey of GPs which found that a 15 day wait is normal, with 22% of GPs reporting the delay at three weeks.[xcviii] However, this is likely to understate the level of crisis in NI, which is recognised as being much worse than in GB. A survey of NI patients found 72% are dissatisfied with waiting times to see a GP.[xcix]


Pivotal’s report highlighted the lack of support for patients with mental health difficulties. “Northern Ireland spends just 5% of its total health budget on mental health, which is less than half of the proportion allocated in England, despite estimates of local mental health problems being 25% higher than in England.” However, NI has the UK’s second lowest incidence of drug misuse, with Scotland having the highest – the rate of drug use was 5.95% of the population in NI; 9.4% in England and Wales; and 12% in Scotland.[c] The figure for RoI was 7%.[ci] The Suicide Statistics Report from Samaritans provided more details of the crisis in Northern Ireland and placed it in context with the situation in the Republic. For men, there are 28 suicides per 100,000 population in Northern Ireland, compared to 15.9 in England and 11.7 in the Republic. For women the rates are 9.5 per 100,000 in Northern Ireland, compared to 4.9 in England and 2.9 in the Republic.[cii]


RoI has a mixed private and public healthcare system. State spending on healthcare in Ireland is lower than the EU average. When public and private expenditure are included, total spending on healthcare is approximately at the EU average. “Per capita health spending in Ireland was €3,513 in 2019 (adjusted for purchasing power), which is close to the EU average. The proportion of expenditure from voluntary health insurance schemes was 14% – the second highest in the EU, and almost three times higher than the EU average (5 %).”[ciii]


Private insurance is taken out by four out of ten people in the state. Some 32% of the population have access to publicly funded healthcare, in which they do not have to pay any fees. A visit to a GP costs €40 to €60 and a visit to accident and emergency costs €100, unless it is a referral from a GP, when it is free.[civ] These fees are above the average for an advanced economy.[cv] A third of the RoI population are entitled to medical cards, removing their need to pay for treatment. The primary determination for this is their income, via means testing.  A small number of people obtain discretionary medical cards on the basis of ‘undue hardship’.

For those without permanent medical cards, a prescription charge or levy of €1.50 per item (€1.00 for people over 70), up to a maximum of €15 (€10 for people over 70) per month per capita or family. There are other categories of full or partial relief from charges for seeing a GP, prescriptions and hospital treatment.[cvi] The Irish government has removed what was an €80 a day hospital in-patient charge, making hospital stays free for all patients.[cvii]


While the Irish system has serious challenges and problems, the system achieves good results compared to other European countries.[cviii]  Inequality in the delivery of healthcare in the Irish Republic is a serious problem, which is a result of the lack of coverage of free access to the system. “Those with a lower social position are more likely to report unmet healthcare needs, as well as unmet medical examination and treatment needs,” argued the Nevin Economic Research Institute in 2018. “When looking at the situation for Ireland as a whole it is clear that cost and waiting lists were the key reasons for unmet healthcare need, these issues are more problematic for those with lower income and lower levels of education attainment.”[cix] Almost 200,000 patients had waited more than 18 months for an initial outpatient appointment, as at September 2021. Around 1.3 million patients were on a waiting list for assessment or treatment in mid 2022.[cx]


McGuinness and Bergin state: “our analysis suggests that the gap between the Irish and UK health systems has narrowed, presumably as a consequence of much higher levels of per capita health expenditure by the Irish government and the impacts of austerity policies in the UK. We find that the Irish system does have more up-front charges; however, it also contains balances to ensure that healthcare remains free at the point of use for the most vulnerable in society.


“Using data from the OECD Healthcare at a Glance report, we show hospital care coverage is substantially superior in the UK, while Ireland has somewhat higher rates of doctors, nurses, hospital beds and hospital discharges per 10,000 population. Both health systems appear to be outlying poor performers among OECD countries in terms of acute care bed occupancy rates, indicating that neither health service has enough spare capacity to deal with seasonal fluctuations in demand. A high acute bed occupancy rate is also consistent with ineffective processes for moving patients efficiently through the hospital system, which also points towards serious shortfalls in social care provision within both health systems.”[cxi]


OECD data show that RoI has a much higher number of doctors per thousand of population than does the UK[cxii], while also reporting that RoI outperforms the UK in terms of the number of nurses per doctor[cxiii]. The OECD further reports that RoI has a significantly higher number of nurses per thousand in the population than does the UK,[cxiv] while NI is separately reported as having a higher proportion of nurses to its population than does England[cxv]. However, it is unclear how reliable these statistics are as other sources provide different statistics and contrasting comparisons, possibly because of differences in methodology. (Differences include whether midwives and practice nurses are included.) Difficulties in usefully comparing statistics in health staff are underlined by a Nuffield Trust report (using OECD data) stating that the UK has a larger number of hospital staff per 1,000 population than RoI or, indeed, most other advanced economies.[cxvi] It is also unclear how NI compares to England in terms of GPs per thousand of population. At one point in recent years, NI overtook England in the proportion of GPs to general population[cxvii], but since then the crisis in healthcare in NI has substantially worsened with the result that a significant number of GPs have either left the profession or their location, with contracts being handed back by GP practices in several parts of NI. Difficulties in comparing healthcare worker numbers between NI and RoI were confirmed in an ESRI report, which observed “Comparing GP numbers between Ireland and Northern Ireland is problematic”, specifically because head count numbers do not indicate how many hours the GPs work and how many are working part time.[cxviii] Despite this, the report adds: “While there are some potential comparability issues across the jurisdictions, the available data suggest that the number of GPs per 100,000 population is broadly comparable.”


The issue of data inconsistency between NI and RoI also apply to state expenditure. The same report explains: “there are no comparable data on healthcare expenditure for Ireland and Northern Ireland.” The report continues: “Given the limitations of the available data, it is difficult to draw conclusions about how healthcare expenditure in Ireland compares to that in Northern Ireland. However, it would appear that publicly financed healthcare expenditure is at relatively similar levels across Ireland and Northern Ireland, but that expenditure from private sources is likely to be greater in Ireland. Therefore, overall healthcare expenditure in Ireland is likely to be greater than that in Northern Ireland.” It adds that it is likely that patients in the UK are likely to contribute more in ‘out of pocket’ expenses towards their healthcare: ie spending that is neither paid for by the state nor an insurer. However, this particularly applies to England, where there are prescription charges, unlike the situation in NI.


As a result of Brexit, citizens in Northern Ireland have lost free access to the healthcare systems of EU26 nations as a solution to long waiting times. Citizens in the South continue to have access to other EU member states’ healthcare systems to reduce waiting times for treatment. In addition, the North’s citizens have lost access to the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which has partially been replaced by UK Global Health Insurance Card.[cxix]


Life expectancy has improved substantially in RoI over recent decades and now exceeds life expectancy in both Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole. According to Eurostat, life expectancy in RoI in the 2020 year was 81.4 years (falling from 81.7 years in 2019 and falling further to 80.3 in 2021, as the impact of Covid hit society). In Northern Ireland, life expectancy in the in 2018 to 2020 period was 78.7 years for males and 82.4 years for females.[cxx] There are significant differences based on location. Male life expectancy in the Lisburn & Castlereagh council area was 80.2 years, compared to just 75.6 years in Belfast (for women the figures were 83.2 years and 80.5 years respectively).[cxxi] In the UK as a whole, life expectancy was marginally better than that in NI, but lower than that in RoI. In the 2018/2020 period UK life expectancy was 79.0 years for males and 82.9 years for females. While life expectancy in NI is lower than that in England, it is higher than either Scotland or Wales.[cxxii] As with NI, there are substantial variations in life expectancy in RoI based on location: people can expect to die much younger if they life in more deprived, with significantly higher mortality related to cancer respiratory illnesses and circulatory diseases.[cxxiii]


Educational, skills and childcare


The levels of educational engagement in Roi are better than those in NI at every age group, from age 3 to age 64, including in terms of pre-school, school years and working age skills enhancement.[cxxiv] This is particularly significant in terms of later years engagement at school, which is recognised as a major factor in the comparatively high level of working age adults without adequate skills or qualifications in NI. This, in turn, leads to a comparatively low employment rate, with adults with low skills more likely to be either unemployed or economically inactive.


Rate of early leavers from education and training, 18 to 24 years:


RoI       5.0%                NI        9.4%


Source: OECD, Regional Economy Database


Comparison with the education and skills outcomes from other advanced economies, including RoI and England, shows significant areas of underperformance in NI. The most positive aspect is that skills outcomes in NI are improving. Based on this analysis, RoI is also underperforming against England.


Source: OECD: Skills Strategy for Northern Ireland, 2020


A comparison of NI and RoI concluded that while both countries face some similar problems, RoI has a stronger skills base, especially in the technical fields taught in further education colleges. “The proportion of graduates is the same in both jurisdictions. However, NI has only a very small proportion who complete a post-secondary, non-third level qualification compared to Ireland where Post Leaving Certificate (PLC) courses have become very popular. Ten per cent of the population in NI have this level of qualification compared to 30% in Ireland.”[cxxv]


“Northern Ireland is one of only a few developed countries in the world that does not have a specific childcare policy in place.”[cxxvi] Yet comprehensive provision of childcare is an essential element in the economy of a modern society. It enables parents to be fully active in the labour market – and the limited availability of childcare in NI is a factor in its unusually high level of economic inactivity and low employment rate. Moreover, it has been shown in studies to be a very important building block for the children, improving subsequent education and career outcomes.


“Early childhood is a key life stage and early childhood experiences are crucial not only for children’s well-being, but for their subsequent development,” concludes an ESRI report. “There is increasing evidence that social inequalities in outcomes emerge even before children start school, and a large body of international research highlights that investing in high-quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) can benefit children’s cognitive and non-cognitive development. Affordable childcare has an important role in facilitating parental employment, which in turn can reduce child poverty.”


Pre-school provision is available in both the RoI and NI. However, a report by the NI Fiscal Council indicated that the NI support for childcare is less than in the rest of the UK. “‘Sub-parity’ policies [ie those less generous than in the rest of the UK] are rarer but include less generous childcare support in NI than elsewhere.”[cxxvii]


“Universal preschool provision is provided for children in the year preceding primary school in Northern Ireland and for two years preceding primary school in Ireland. Participation rates are very high in both preschool programmes and they are regarded highly by stakeholders. Preschool programmes are part-time for most children. In Ireland, the entitlement is to 15 hours per week. In Northern Ireland, this entitlement is currently at 12.5 hours per week, considerably below that of other UK regions, although in practice some children are receiving 22.5 hours of preschool, depending on where they live.”


However, comprehensive provision can be expensive for parents. “Outside the preschool programmes, in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, most working parents access ECEC through a variety of providers. In both jurisdictions government subsidies reduce the costs, particularly for lower-income families, but for middle and higher income families, ECEC costs are higher than in many other European countries….. Centre-based care and childminding is much more common in Ireland than in Northern Ireland, with parents in Northern Ireland relying more on family and friends for care. This may reflect gaps in provision, as well as affordability issues. Children from lower income groups in both jurisdictions are more likely to be looked after by relatives or full-time by their parents….. We found evidence of social inequality in children’s outcomes in both Ireland and Northern Ireland. At age five, children from lower income households and/or those whose mothers have lower educational qualifications have poorer vocabulary and teacher-rated skills.”[cxxviii]


In England, parents and guardians may be eligible for 30 hours free childcare for children who are three to four years of age, provided they are placed with an approved childcare provider. The eligibility ends when a child reaches compulsory school age, or enters a reception class.

In Scotland, parents and guardians can get up to 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare a year – ie about 30 hours a week in term – if the child is three or four years of age. It is also available for some two year olds.


In Wales, parents and guardians can apply for childcare and early education of up to 30 hours a week. The 30 hours consists of at least 10 hours of early education a week and up to 20 hours a week of childcare. The amount provided is dependent on the provision of early education from the local authority.




The UK’s decision to leave the European Union and more than a decade of public spending austerity have had serious negative impacts on the UK’s economy, its productivity and also on the personal incomes of its population. Political uncertainty in NI means that it is as yet impossible to predict if it will substantially benefit from its continued access to both the GB and EU goods markets, or whether it will economically decline along with GB. Indeed, Conservative politicians in GB argue that the UK as a whole will outperform the EU over the longer term, by strengthening relationships with countries in regions that are growing faster than Europe. At present, statistics show the EU, including RoI, to be in much stronger economic positions than the UK. This has led to serious negative impacts on household earnings.


NI has both gained and lost in the period since Brexit. It has increased its trade with RoI, protecting itself from the more severe Brexit impact felt by GB. However, pay rate increases in NI have not matched those in either GB or RoI, nor, of course, have they matched the rise in the cost of living. Meanwhile, core costs – including food and home rents – have risen faster in NI than in other parts of the UK. Households in NI have suffered the double whammy of costs rising faster than in the rest of the UK, but also real pay falling faster. While RoI suffered disproportionately badly from 2007/8 recession, it has since bounced back faster and stronger than either NI or GB. As a smaller economy, RoI is more vulnerable to major economic shocks, even if it has now strengthened its regulatory environment since the banking crash. High housing costs are a clear and obvious impediment to the effective functioning of the Irish economy, as well as causing serious social harm.


The shape of the RoI economy and society is significantly different from that in GB or NI. It provides more generous support payments to pensioners and those on welfare benefits. But it requires patients to contribute to their health care costs, for example by paying to see a GP. However, RoI is undergoing significant reforms of health care charges, leading to many of these being abolished, while a large proportion of the population avoids them because of personal circumstances. In NI, patients theoretically have access to free health care, but the near collapse of the system in practice means that many patients now subscribe to health insurance, while others can be faced with the choice of paying for private care or else waiting many years for treatment.


The UK is one of Europe’s most unequal societies, with NI and the North East of England having noticeably much weaker economies than that in the South East of England. RoI is also marked by inequality, with Dublin overheating in terms of housing costs, while other regions have difficulty in attracting well paid employment. Even within NI, there is substantial inequality between parts of the East and the North West. Regional policy needs to be strengthened in RoI, NI and GB.


At present NI is held back by its high rate of economic inactivity, which reflects problems with its healthcare system, childcare provision and, especially, the high school drop out rate for teenagers, which creates an enduring challenge of inadequate skills and qualifications across a significant part of the population. This means that even if the economic conditions are in place by a surge in employment in the post-Brexit circumstances, the skilled staff may not exist to enable this to happen. That could lead to pay increases in parts of the labour market, but additional inequality within society rather than an observable improvement in conditions for the majority of the population.



[i] https://www.nisra.gov.uk/statistics/labour-market-and-social-welfare/annual-survey-hours-and-earnings

[ii] https://www.nerinstitute.net/sites/default/files/research/2022/Northern%20Ireland%20Labour%20Market%20Observer%20Post-crisis%20and%20Pre-crisis.pdf

[iii] https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/datasets/realtimeinformationstatisticsreferencetablenonseasonallyadjusted

[iv] https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-elcq/earningsandlabourcostsq22022finalq32022preliminaryestimates

[v] https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-eurostat-news/w/ddn-20221219-3#:~:text=Among%20the%20EU%20Member%20States,Ireland%20(%E2%82%AC50%20300)

[vi] https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/2995521/7762327/3-08122016-AP-EN.pdf

[vii] https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/bulletins/annualsurveyofhoursandearnings/2017provisionaland2016revisedresults

[viii] https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/bulletins/annualsurveyofhoursandearnings/2018

[ix] https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/bulletins/annualsurveyofhoursandearnings/2019

[x] https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/bulletins/annualsurveyofhoursandearnings/2020

[xi] https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/bulletins/annualsurveyofhoursandearnings/2021

[xii] https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/er/elca/earningsandlabourcostsannualdata2017/

[xiii] https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/er/elca/earningsandlabourcostsannualdata2018/

[xiv] https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/er/elca/earningsandlabourcostsannualdata2019/

[xv] https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/er/elcq/earningsandlabourcostsq32020finalq42020preliminaryestimates/

[xvi] https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/er/elcq/earningsandlabourcostsq32021finalq42021preliminaryestimates/

[xvii] https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/inflationandpriceindices/articles/priceseconomicanalysisquarterly/august2021

[xviii] https://data.oecd.org/earnwage/average-wages.htm

[xix] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/percentile-points-from-1-to-99-for-total-income-before-and-after-tax

[xx] https://www.tasc.ie/assets/files/pdf/top_10-report-final-oct20v.pdf

[xxi] https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/3217494/8309812/KS-EI-17-001-EN-N.pdf/b7df53f5-4faf-48a6-aca1-c650d40c9239

[xxii] https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Wages_and_labour_costs

[xxiii] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/personalandhouseholdfinances/incomeandwealth/bulletins/householddisposableincomeandinequality/financialyearending2022#:~:text=Disposable%20income%20is%20the%20amount,benefits%20provided%20by%20the%20state.

[xxiv] https://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/countries/ireland/#:~:text=It%20represents%20the%20money%20available,average%20of%20USD%2030%20490.

[xxv] https://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/countries/united-kingdom/#:~:text=It%20represents%20the%20money%20available,average%20of%20USD%2030%20490.

[xxvi] https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/regionalaccounts/grossdisposablehouseholdincome/bulletins/regionalgrossdisposablehouseholdincomegdhi/1997to2020#gross-disposable-household-income-by-uk-constituent-country-and-region

[xxvii] Adele Bergin and Seamus McGuinness, Who is Better Off? Measuring Cross-border Differences in Living Standards, Opportunities and Quality of Life on the Island of Ireland, Irish Studies in International Affairs, Volume 32, Number 2, Analysing and Researching Ireland, North and South 2021, pp. 143-160

[xxviii] https://data.oecd.org/hha/household-spending.htm

[xxix] Adele Bergin and Seamus McGuinness, Who is Better Off? Measuring Cross-border Differences in Living Standards, Opportunities and Quality of Life on the Island of Ireland, Irish Studies in International Affairs, Volume 32, Number 2, Analysing and Researching Ireland, North and South 2021, pp. 143-160

[xxx] https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-eurostat-news/-/wdn-20220623-1

[xxxi] https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-eurostat-news/-/wdn-20220623-1

[xxxii] https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=File:Table1Price_level_indices_for_food,_beverages_and_tobacco,_2017_(EU-28%3D100).png

[xxxiii] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/personalandhouseholdfinances/expenditure/datasets/detailedhouseholdexpenditurebycountriesandregionsuktablea35

[xxxiv] https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/datasets/realtimeinformationstatisticsreferencetablenonseasonallyadjusted

[xxxv] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/uk-house-price-index-for-december-2022/uk-house-price-index-summary-december-2022

[xxxvi] https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/inflationandpriceindices/bulletins/indexofprivatehousingrentalprices/january2023

[xxxvii] https://content.propertypal.com/northern-ireland-housing-market-trends-q3-2022/

[xxxviii] https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/inflationandpriceindices/bulletins/indexofprivatehousingrentalprices/january2023

[xxxix] https://ww1.daft.ie/report/2022-Q4-rentalprice-daftreport.pdf?d_rd=1

[xl] https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-gpii/geographicalprofilesofincomeinireland2016/housing/

[xli] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/housing/bulletins/privaterentalaffordabilityengland/2021#:~:text=1.-,Main%20points,financial%20year%20ending%20March%202021.

[xlii] Mike Tomlinson, Social Security in a Unified Ireland, Irish Studies in International Affairs, Volume 33, Number 2, Analysing and Researching Ireland, North and South 2022, pp. 228-246

[xliii] Mike Tomlinson, Social Security in a Unified Ireland, Irish Studies in International Affairs, Volume 33, Number 2, Analysing and Researching Ireland, North and South 2022, pp. 228-246

[xliv] https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN00290/SN00290.pdf

[xlv] https://www.citizensinformation.ie/en/social_welfare/social_welfare_payments/older_and_retired_people/state_pension_contributory.html#l3c9e1

[xlvi] https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/Welfare_States_Touchstone_Extra_2015_AW_Rev.pdf

[xlvii] https://www.nicva.org/resource/economic-inequality-in-northern-ireland#:~:text=Since%202006%2D09%2C%20the%20ratio,receive%2024%25%20of%20all%20income

[xlviii] https://www.nicva.org/resource/economic-inequality-in-northern-ireland#:~:text=Since%202006%2D09%2C%20the%20ratio,receive%2024%25%20of%20all%20income

[xlix] CIA World Factbook, quoting 2017 estimates for the UK and 2018 estimates for Ireland

[l] https://static1.squarespace.com/static/604f6c4cbaa61721597a264b/t/63722b446106cb5e0bfae775/1668426570663/poverty_in_northern_ireland_2022_JRF.pdf

[li] Source: CIA World Factbook, quoting 2012 figures for the UK and 2000 figures for ireland.

[lii] https://www.economy-ni.gov.uk/news/employee-earnings-northern-ireland-october-2022#:~:text=Median%20gross%20weekly%20earnings%20for,to%20%C2%A3592%20in%202022

[liii] Paul McFlynn, Incomes in Northern Ireland – A Decade of Change, Nevin Economic Research Institute, November 2021

[liv] https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/Welfare_States_Touchstone_Extra_2015_AW_Rev.pdf

[lv] https://www.consumercouncil.org.uk/consumers/latest/newsroom/northern-irelands-poorest-households-left-only-ps29-week-during-cost

[lvi] Patrick Gallagher and Ciaran Nugent, Temporary Employment, Low Paid Work and Job Security amongst Young Irish Workers, Nevin Economic Research Institute, June 2022

[lvii] Lisa Wilson, The Gender Pay Gap in Ireland and Why We Need National Statistics, Nevin Economic Research Institute, October 2022

[lviii] https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/2995521/8718272/3-07032018-BP-EN.pdf/fb402341-e7fd-42b8-a7cc-4e33587d79aa

[lix] https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-cirgdp/countyincomesandregionalgdp2020/

[lx] NISRA Labour Market Report, February 2023

[lxi] NISRA Labour Market Report, February 2023

[lxii] https://equalitytrust.org.uk/scale-economic-inequality-uk#:~:text=Wealth%20is%20also%20unevenly%20spread,in%20the%20North%20of%20Engand.

[lxiii] https://equalitytrust.org.uk/scale-economic-inequality-uk#:~:text=Wealth%20is%20also%20unevenly%20spread,in%20the%20North%20of%20Engand.

[lxiv] https://www.nisra.gov.uk/statistics/uk-national-wellbeing-measures-northern-ireland-data/personal-finance

[lxv] https://www.cso.ie/en/csolatestnews/pressreleases/2023pressreleases/pressstatementflashestimatefortheharmonisedindexofconsumerpricesjanuary2023/

[lxvi] https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/inflationandpriceindices/timeseries/l55o/mm23

[lxvii] Paul McFlynn, Northern Ireland Labour Market Observer: Post-Crisis and Pre-Crisis, Nevin Economic Research Institute, NERI Report Series Number 20

[lxviii] https://obr.uk/forecasts-in-depth/the-economy-forecast/brexit-analysis/#assumptions

[lxix] John Springford, The Cost of Brexit to June 2022, Centre for European Reform, December 2022

[lxx] Jonathan Haskel and Josh Martin, How has Brexit affected business investment in the UK?, Economics Observatory, March 2023

[lxxi] https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2023/04/11/world-economic-outlook-april-2023?cid=bl-com-spring2023flagships-WEOEA2023001

[lxxii] https://www.oecd.org/economy/united-kingdom-economic-snapshot/

[lxxiii] Esmond Birnie, What has been the economic impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol?, Economics Observatory, July 2022

[lxxiv] https://economy-finance.ec.europa.eu/economic-surveillance-eu-economies/ireland/economic-forecast-ireland_en

[lxxv] https://issuu.com/oecd.publishing/docs/ireland-oecd-economic-outlook-projection-note-nove

[lxxvi] https://www.imf.org/en/Countries/IRL

[lxxvii] David Jordan, Can investment in skills improve Northern Ireland’s productivity performance?, Economics Observatory, April 2022

[lxxviii] https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/labourproductivity/datasets/subregionalproductivitylabourproductivityindicesbylocalauthoritydistrict

[lxxix] https://www.productivity.ac.uk/research/northern-ireland-productivity-dashboard-2022/

[lxxx] Paul Goldrick-Kelly and Paul Flynn, Productivity on the Island of Ireland – A tale of three economies, Nevin Economic Research Institute, NERI WP 2018/No.57, 2018

[lxxxi] Paul Goldrick-Kelly and Paul Flynn, Productivity on the Island of Ireland – A tale of three economies, Nevin Economic Research Institute, NERI WP 2018/No.57, 2018

[lxxxii] https://www.nisra.gov.uk/system/files/statistics/NI-Composite-Economic-Index-Q3-2022.pdf

[lxxxiii] https://www.nisra.gov.uk/system/files/statistics/NI-Composite-Economic-Index-Q3-2022.pdf

[lxxxiv] https://www.nisra.gov.uk/system/files/statistics/NI-Composite-Economic-Index-Q3-2022.pdf

[lxxxv] https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/bulletins/uklabourmarket/latest

[lxxxvi] https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-lfs/labourforcesurveyquarter32022/employment/

[lxxxvii] https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/datasets/nationallabourmarketsummarybyregions01

[lxxxviii] Adele Bergin and Seamus McGuinness, Who is Better Off? Measuring Cross-border Differences in Living Standards, Opportunities and Quality of Life on the Island of Ireland, Irish Studies in International Affairs, Volume 32, Number 2, Analysing and Researching Ireland, North and South 2021, pp. 143-160

[lxxxix] https://datavis.nisra.gov.uk/economy-and-labour-market/labour-market-report-january-2023.html#

[xc] https://stats.oecd.org/index.aspx?queryid=35562


[xcii] Anne Devlin, How has Covid-19 affected economic inactivity in Northern Ireland?, Economics Observatory, December 2022

[xciii] Paul McFlynn, Northern Ireland Labour Market Observer: Post-Crisis and Pre-Crisis, Nevin Economic Research Institute, NERI Report Series Number 20

[xciv] Adele Bergin and Seamus McGuinness, Who is Better Off? Measuring Cross-border Differences in Living Standards, Opportunities and Quality of Life on the Island of Ireland, Irish Studies in International Affairs, Volume 32, Number 2, Analysing and Researching Ireland, North and South 2021, pp. 143-160

[xcv] https://www.pivotalppf.org/cmsfiles/Publications/Moving-forward-report–web-version.pdf

[xcvi] ‘NI patients face seven year delay for assessment’, Irish Times, 7 June, 2022

[xcvii] https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/health/health-service-described-as-not-fit-for-purpose-in-judicial-review-of-ni-hospital-waiting-lists-41684114.html

[xcviii] https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/uk/average-wait-for-gp-appointment-breaches-two-week-mark-for-first-time/38395172.html

[xcix] https://www.belfastlive.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/majority-people-northern-ireland-worried-26566319

[c] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/united-kingdom-drug-situation-focal-point-annual-report/uk-drug-situation-2019-summary

[ci] Deirdre Mongan, Sean R Miller and Brian Galvin, The 2019-20 Irish National Drug and Alcohol Survey: Main Findings, Health Research Board, 2021

[cii] https://media.samaritans.org/documents/SamaritansSuicideStatsReport_2019_Dec19_compressed.pdf

[ciii] https://ec.europa.eu/health/sites/default/files/state/docs/2021_chp_ir_english.pdf

[civ] https://www.irishlifehealth.ie/IrishLifeHealth/media/Irish-life-Health/ilh.pdf

[cv] https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/sl%C3%A1intecare-as-much-a-reputational-as-a-quality-of-life-issue-1.4717358

[cvi] https://wise.com/gb/blog/healthcare-system-in-ireland

[cvii] https://www.hse.ie/eng/about/who/acute-hospitals-division/patient-care/hospital-charges/

[cviii] https://ec.europa.eu/health/sites/default/files/state/docs/2021_chp_ir_english.pdf

[cix] Quarterly Economic Observer, Nevin Economic Research Institute, First Edition, 2018

[cx] ‘Quarter of public on health waiting lists’, Irish Times, 6 June, 2022

[cxi] Seamus McGuinness and Adele Bergin, The Political Economy of a Northern Ireland Border Poll, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 2020, 44 (4), 781 – 812

[cxii] https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/social-issues-migration-health/doctors/indicator/english_4355e1ec-en

[cxiii] https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/015d1834-en/index.html?itemId=/content/component/015d1834-en

[cxiv] https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/015d1834-en/index.html?itemId=/content/component/015d1834-en

[cxv] https://www.nuffieldtrust.org.uk/sites/default/files/2022-12/facts-and-figures-on-nursing-workforce-nuffield-trust.pdf

[cxvi] https://www.nuffieldtrust.org.uk/resource/the-nhs-workforce-in-numbers#toc-header-7

[cxvii] https://www.nuffieldtrust.org.uk/resource/the-nhs-workforce-in-numbers#toc-header-7

[cxviii] Sheelah Connelly, Aoife Brick, Ciaran O’Neill and Michael O’Callaghan, An analysis of the primary care systems of Ireland and Northern Ireland, ESRI, Research Series Number 137, March 2022

[cxix] https://www.gov.uk/global-health-insurance-card

[cxx] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/lifeexpectancies/bulletins/nationallifetablesunitedkingdom/2018to2020

[cxxi] https://www.health-ni.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/health/hscims-life-expectancy-ni-2019-21.pdf

[cxxii] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/lifeexpectancies]

Source: Office for National Statistics – National life tables – life expectancy in the UK: 2018 to 2020

[cxxiii] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/mortality-insights-bulletin-from-gad-july-2022/mortality-insights-bulletin-july-2022#:~:text=The%20life%20expectancy%20of%20a,this%20age%20can%20vary%20significantly

[cxxiv] Emer Smyth, Anne Devlin, Adele Bergin and Seamus McGuinness, A North-South Comparison of Education and Training Systems: Lessons for Policy, ESRI, Research Series Number 138, April 2022

[cxxv] Emer Smyth, Anne Devlin, Adele Bergin and Seamus McGuinness, A North-South Comparison of Education and Training Systems: Lessons for Policy, ESRI, Research Series Number 138, April 2022

[cxxvi] Anne Devlin, How has Covid-19 affected economic inactivity in Northern Ireland?, Economics Observatory, December 2022

[cxxvii] https://www.nifiscalcouncil.org/files/nifiscalcouncil/documents/2021-11/the-public-finances-in-northern-ireland-final-version_0.pdf

[cxxviii] Sarah Curristan, Frances McGinnity, Helen Russell and Emer Smyth, Early Childhood Education and Care in Ireland and Northern Ireland, ESRI, Research Series Number 157, January 2023

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *