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Fair Employment

There is a widespread perception abroad that anti-Catholic discrimination in employment is endemic here in Ulster. This alleged job discrimination is said to be rife in both the public and private sectors, despite the existence, since 1976, of the Fair Employment Agency and its more recent successor, the Fair Employment Commission.

We recognise that to some, even to cast doubt on the theory of widespread and systematic anti-Catholic discrimination is to be taken as support for such discrimination. We have no wish to be so misunderstood. A Catholic has as much right to employment and to provide for his or her family as any Protestant. No barriers ought to be erected to preserve any kind of sectarian privilege in any private or public sector workplace. Persons ought only to be employed on merit - their qualifications and aptitude for the job - nothing else. We are not apologists for unfairness in employment.

The 1989 Fair Employment Act requires every employer of more than eleven persons to register with the FEC and to monitor the perceived religious affiliation of its employees. `Perceived religious affiliation' does not necessarily mean actual religious affiliation. This is determined by the school attended by the employee. A person who attended a State-controlled school is regarded as a member of the Protestant Community. A person who attended a Catholic school is regarded as a member of the Roman Catholic Community. Integrated schools are too new to appear in these determinations but we would be interested to see how the FEC will classify such students when they eventually enter the workforce.

Many employers were reluctant to ask their employees for details of their religion, believing that it was no concern of theirs. The threat of heavy fines and imprisonment soon silenced such objections. Many employers also objected to such information being published as proposed by the FEC. Some feared that being labelled as a Protestant or Catholic firm could leave them open to attack by one or other sectarian gun gang looking for an easy target.

Despite these objections, the FEC has now published a religious breakdown of each employment in Ulster. In his foreword, the FEC's chairman, Bob Cooper writes that the list was published to openly address "the issue of Protestant and Catholic under-representation" in the workplace. This list does nothing of the kind. Only the bare figures are given. It is not possible to judge whether Catholics or Protestants are underrepresented in one or another company unless there is also some estimate of the firms 'catchment area' and the religious breakdown of the population in that area. Only if there is a substantial difference in this breakdown from that of any firm in the area can it be said that one or other of the groups is under-represented. It should be added that such under-representation is not in itself evidence of discrimination - other factors may need to be taken into account in this sharply divided society. For example, it is not always possible to site firms in neutral areas. Many employees will only work in areas where they feel safe, or where they identify with their employers in some way. Not many Protestants work for the Irish News for example, nor for the Catholic Council of Maintained Schools yet both are 'Equal Opportunity Employers'.

The FEC list has no estimate of firms' catchment areas, so no true conclusion can be drawn about whether Catholics or Protestants are underrepresented in a particular firm. In fact, the information is downright misleading. It invites us to draw the unjustified conclusion that many employers are guilty of unfair employment' practices because their workforce diverges markedly from the Ulster-wide average.

The Campaign for Economic Equality and the US-based Irish National Congress invite people to help the cause of fair employment by boycotting firms which are guilty of anti-Catholic discrimination. However, this cannot be determined without a full investigation of the firms' catchment areas and employment practices. Such groups are also very vague on what should be done to correct perceived imbalances. Equality wants the Northern Bank to 'urgently correct their behaviour'. What does this mean in practical terms? Apparently 8496 of the Northern Bank's employees are not Catholics. Does this mean that the Northern should urgently sack 24% of its employees and re-employ an equal number of Catholics in their place? Is there to be a moratorium on employing non-Catholics for the next ten years until the workforce is balanced? Is there to be a quota of Catholics in an American style 'affirmative action` programme? This would not be a recipe for peace and good community relations. On the contrary - sectarian strife and hatred would only grow and fester in such circumstances. Unemployment is very high and there is little in the way of new recruitment. Both the Local Enterprise Development Unit and the Industrial Development Board fell well short of their targets in attracting new investment and employment during 1991/1992. Providing employment for those who have no jobs must take priority over searching for the will o'the wisp of a 'balanced' workforce.

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