By Ivan Little
BELFAST (Reuters) - Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron told Northern Irish politicians on Thursday that segregation between Protestant and Catholics in the British-controlled province must come to an end.
Despite a 1998 peace deal mostly ending three decades of violence that cost some 3,600 lives, concrete walls as high as 12 meters still separate some members of the two communities.
Pointing to an increase in the so-called "peace walls" since a deal was struck to restore devolved government to Northern Ireland five years ago, Cameron said he did not underestimate the challenge of bringing about greater unity.
"A crucial area where I believe we need to move beyond the peace process is in tackling the causes of division within society here," the prime minister said in an address to the province's power-sharing assembly.
"Given the history of Northern Ireland I don't for one minute underestimate the scale of the challenge but it is a depressing fact that since the 2006 St Andrews agreement the number of so-called peace walls has increased from 37 from 48."
Making his first visit to Northern Ireland in more than a year, Cameron quoted a survey which said the cost of segregation through the duplication of public services alone was around 1.5 billion pounds ($2.46 billion) a year.
He said it was not just about the economic cost but rather about the social cost because the divisions "helped sustain terrorism and other criminal activities, particularly within deprived communities."
"Northern Ireland needs a shared future, not a shared-out future."
Cameron also warned that the economy of Northern Ireland was too dependent on the British state and said a new realism was needed about the challenges in the province.
He said with around three-quarters of Northern Ireland's gross domestic product accounted for by state spending, the approach was unsustainable and had to change at a time of the UK's biggest budget deficit in its peace time history.
"The days are over when the answer to every problem is simply to ask the Treasury for more money. That applies here just as it does in other parts of the UK," he said.
He also said Britain would take seriously the results of a consultation paper on whether to give Northern Ireland politicians the power to reduce corporation tax to compete with lower taxes across the border in the Republic of Ireland.
Cameron also pledged to defeat nationalist militants who he said were carrying out an increasing number of bomb and gun attacks.
"These terrorists have no mandate. They offer nothing and they will never succeed," he said.
(Editing by Padraic Halpin)