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Who is better off: those in Northern Ireland, Ireland or Great Britain?

13 October 2023

In the latest ARINS blog post, Paul Gosling draws on the findings of his “Who is Better Off: the Irish, the Northern Irish or the British? A Regional Economic Comparison” article in Irish Studies in International Affairs.

Discussion about a ‘border poll’ arises on social media every day, usually on multiple occasions. It is almost as frequent in mainstream media. The constitutional future of Northern Ireland has become a common talking point.

If it seems likely that a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland will take place at some point in the foreseeable future, it can also be predicted that the conversation will consider whether an individual living in the North will be better or worse off after reunification with the Republic, and whether their standard of living will improve or worsen.

Neither of these questions will have a clear answer. Similarly, there is no straightforward answer to the question ‘Who is today better off: those who live in Ireland, Northern Ireland or Great Britain?’. It all depends on their personal circumstances.

What we can conclude is that pay and the cost of living are both typically higher in Ireland than in Northern Ireland. That is also true of southern England compared to northern England. Regional variations are significant in Great Britain and within Ireland. Property in South Dublin is much more expensive than in Co. Leitrim. High property and rental costs are a feature of both London and Dublin.

Welfare benefits and pensions are also higher in Ireland than in the UK, which is an outlier as an advanced Western European nation in its low payments for benefits and pensions. While the state pension in Ireland is €265.30 (approx. £230), in the UK (including Northern Ireland) it is £203.85 (approx. €235). This differential helps to explain why pensioner poverty is 15.5% in the UK, compared to 6.8% in Ireland.

Inequality is lower in Ireland than in Great Britain. It is also marginally lower in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain, in part because there are fewer people living in Northern Ireland on the very high pay levels that occur in some parts of southern England. Low pay is endemic in much of Northern Ireland, connected to its weak productivity. This stems from the lower qualifications and skills in Northern Ireland compared to both Ireland and Great Britain. Other factors include weak infrastructure and appalling waiting lists and waiting times for healthcare in Northern Ireland.

Health services are bound to be a major point of discussion prior to any referendum. There is a substantial emotional commitment to the NHS by people across the UK, but the reality in Northern Ireland is of crisis. Large numbers of people must wait years before being seen by a specialist, leading to many more people taking out private health insurance or paying for treatment privately.

At the same time, reforms to the health service in Ireland have led to many more citizens being entitled to free care. Those reforms mean that more than half the population of Ireland are now entitled to free access to a GP, including all adults over 70 and children under seven. A third of people are entitled to medical cards, enabling them to have free prescriptions. And hospital in-patient charges have been removed.

Northern Ireland’s structure of employment differs from that in Ireland. While Ireland tends to have higher levels of officially recognised unemployment, some of this is a result of its dynamic economy, with more people moving employment. Northern Ireland is subject to higher levels of economic inactivity, relating to lower levels of skills, more people taking on caring responsibilities and the long health waiting lists.

Another significant difference between the employment picture North and South in Ireland is the higher proportion of public sector workers in Northern Ireland. UK government pay restraint has therefore had a particularly severe impact on Northern Ireland, with real pay falling further behind consumer price inflation than is the case in Great Britain or Ireland. The impact of this is made worse by the costs of household foods in Northern Ireland being the second highest of any UK region, presumably because of higher logistical overheads, and rental costs rising faster in Northern Ireland than in most of the UK.

None of this provides a simple answer to the question of where an individual would be best off to live. Careful analysis reveals that the South has a more dynamic and productive economy than the North, pays more in benefits and pensions, but also has higher living costs. Northern Ireland is facing substantial challenges in the delivery of many public services, especially healthcare, while the issue of patient charges in Ireland is becoming of less relevance as reforms are introduced to exclude charges from more of the population.

However, emotion may play a more important role than statistics when it comes to the actual referendum.


Paul Gosling is an author and journalist. His books include ‘A New Ireland’ and ‘Lessons from the Troubles and the Unsettled Peace’. He works Ulster University to support the IMPACT programme to improve the delivery of adult social care across the UK.

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