CAIN Web Service

Centre for the Study of Conflict
School of History, Philosophy and Politics,
Faculty of Humanities, University of Ulster

Centre Publications

[Centre for the Study of Conflict - Home Page]
[Background] [Staff] [Projects] [CENTRE PUBLICATIONS] [Other Information] [Contact Details]
[Chronological Listing] [Alphabetical Listing] [Subject Listing]

Text: edited by A C Hepburn Page Design: John Hughes

Employment in Divided Societies frontispiece

Employment in Divided Societies

edited by A C Hepburn
Published by the University of Ulster, Coleraine 1981
ISBN 90122 942 3
Paperback 54 pp £2.00

Out of Print

This material is copyright of the Centre for the Study of Conflict and the author(s) and is included on the CAIN web site with the permission of the publisher. Reproduction or redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

Employment in Divided Societies

Edited by A C Hepburn

Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster


The work of the Fair Employment Agency
R G Cooper

The Experience of the Legal Enforcement of the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1976
Christopher McCrudden

Ethnic Proportions in Employment on Provincial and National-Level Government in South Tyrol
A E Alcock

The Work of the Fair Employment Agency

R G Cooper, Director, Fair Employment Agency

Complaints of discrimination formed one of the major features of the demands of the Civil Rights Movement which arose in Northern Ireland in the 1960s. Government initially accepted that it was necessary to do something about allegations of discrimination in the public sector of employment but there was initially more reluctance to tackle the problem of the private sector. To some extent there was the idea that what a private company did was its own business and was no concern of Government.

In 1972, however, within six months of the introduction of direct rule the Secretary of State, Mr, William Whitelaw, set up a Working Party called the Van Straubenzee Working Party, after its Chairman who was then Minister of State, to examine what steps should be taken to counter religious discrimination where it might exist in the private sector of employment. The Working Party, apart from the Minister, consisted entirely of representatives of both sides of industry in Northern Ireland It was a major achievement that, on this divisive issue, a unanimous report was produced. When I say "divisive" I would refer to a number of public opinion polls with fairly uniform results which show that something like 80% or more of the Catholic population believed that discrimination in employment was a major cause of the current troubles, whereas a similar percentage of the Protestant population believed that discrimination was not a major problem or, if it existed, had only a marginal effect.

The Working Party reported in 1973 and the legislation was finally passed in 1976 The gap of three years was caused partly by the change of Government in early 1974 and also because, at that time, a great deal of consideration was being given to the whole question of anti-discrimination legislation in both the sex and race fields in Britain. The legislation has been described by a Unionist M.P. as the last act during the "sackcloth and ashes" era.

The Working Party did not examine in any detail the extent of discrimination or inequality of opportunity in Northern Ireland but said that they were satisfied that it was a problem of sufficient magnitude to merit legislation. It would be useful, however, to look at the situation as it was at that time in order to determine the extent of the problem facing the agency.

The first Research Report of the Agency, entitled An Industrial and Occupational Profile of the two Sections of the Population in Northern Ireland (1978), sets out in some detail the position of the two communities The summary of the information in that report is as follows:

The main points which have emerged from this examination of the 1971 Northern Ireland population census can be outlined as follows. Unemployment is experienced at a much higher level by Roman Catholics than by Protestants. Overall, the level is two and a half times greater. This higher level of unemployment is likely to be comprised of occupational, industrial and geographical components. The industrial profiling of Protestants and Roman Catholics demonstrated major areas of Roman Catholic under-representation, most notably Engineering, the Utilities and Insurance, Banking, Finance and Business Services and the unhealthy over-dependence of Roman Catholic males on the Construction industry. Extending the industrial profile to consider wages it was observed that there was a tendency for those industries which had the highest weekly manual wage in 1971 to be predominantly Protestant, a tendency which was still more marked for women.

The occupational profile of Protestants and Roman Catholics revealed a distribution of Roman Catholics towards the unskilled occupations. The modal Protestant male is a skilled manual worker whereas the modal Roman Catholic male is unskilled When occupations were matched with industry, which was only possible for construction and engineering, there was a tendency in construction for Roman Catholics to be employed in the lower status occupations while in engineering, a higher status industry, there was a general under-representation of Roman Catholics in most occupations, particularly marked at managerial level

Overall, a Roman Catholic middle class exists. Its size, however, seems to be largely a product of meeting the demands of a segregated society rather than through performing a more general role as does the Protestant middle class.

Much of the information in this report comes from the religion tables issued in 1975 compiled from the 1971 census, Those tables make interesting reading and one of the most extraordinary features about them was that, although they had already been published, during the 40 hours or so devoted to the passage of the Fair Employment Act and the line by line scrutiny of the Bill in Committee which was greater than in the case of any other single Act of Parliament dealing with Northern Ireland in the last ten years, there was not a single reference to the tables although charges and counter charges were made with gay abandon One of the points which I have always found significant about them is that of the more than 200 occupations detailed, the white collar occupation which could perhaps be described as most significant with regard to employment patterns in Northern Ireland is Personnel Manager and that occupation ranks with such occupations as Metal Plate Workers and Riveters among the half dozen occupations with the lowest level of participation of Catholics. That particular occupation is of interest when one knows that in one of the cases where the Agency found a case of discrimination which was not appealed but settled, a Catholic Personnel Officer was appointed in a mainly Protestant company and, as a result of representations from the work-force, the offer was withdrawn the following day.

Many explanations have been given for the patterns outlined in this report. For example, there is a widely held belief that Protestants and Catholics have totally different attitudes towards work. The Protestant work ethic means that Protestants are an industrious hard working people, while the Catholic is perhaps charming but not particularly interested in doing a hard days work. This is a view which is not only held by Protestants but to some extent lies behind the argument of many politicians in the South, frequently put forward to the Northern Protestants, that "if you came in with us you'd eat us and be running the country in no time at all".

Work done by Robert Miller, of the Department of Social Studies at Queen's, which consists of an analysis of the questions relative to attitudes to work contained in a mobility study funded by the Social Science Research Council in 1973/74, shows however that there are no significant differences in the attitude to work between the two sections of the community.1 If there is a Protestant work ethic it is as strong on the Falls as on the Shankill.

It is also argued that the lack of educational qualifications is a major factor in the creating of these patterns Dr. R Osborne and Mr R Murray conducted an examination of G.C.E. O' and 'A' levels for the entire school population over a number of years.2 The results show that, whereas it was the case that in 1967, the first year examined, Catholics were achieving lower levels of results than Protestants, there was a very dramatic increase between 1968 and 1975, the last year examined. The level of results before that might provide a partial but very limited explanation for the patterns but there was no evidence that they were a major feature. The changes in that period of eight years were, however, startling. For example, the percentage of candidates gaining 'O' levels who were Roman Catholic rose from thirty-five per cent to forty-five per cent and 'A' levels rose from twenty-seven per cent to thirty-seven per cent in the same period The research showed that there were still some differences in terms of subjects taken with a bias in Catholic schools towards the Humanities and a bias in Protestant schools towards scientific and mathematical subjects Those however who seek to justify the low level of Catholic participation in industrial occupations where science and maths could be important would have to explain why it was that there was also an appallingly low level of Catholic participation in many occupations, particularly in the public sector, where it is widely recognised that there is a strong inbuilt bias in favour of candidates who are strong in the humanities. In any case, one has to recognise that pupils do not study subjects in isolation but are influenced in their choice of subjects by parents' and teachers' perceptions of the subjects which would be useful to the jobs for which the children can have realistic aspirations

At University level, where figures are only available for Queens, there have been dramatic changes in the level of Catholic participation in various subject areas over the last 25 years. In 1953/54 approximately six per cent of students studying pure science at Queens were Catholic, whereas in 1978/79 the figure was just over forty per cent. For applied science the relative figures were eleven point five per cent in 1953/54 and thirty-seven point six per cent in 1978/79. For agriculture, the figure has risen from under four per cent - two Catholics in the Faculty - to over twenty-two per cent. One would have expected, bearing in mind the high level of participation by Catholics in the agriculture industry in Northern Ireland, that there would be a high level of participation in the study of such a subject at University but that did not happen. Agriculture is an interesting figure because to some extent it is illustrative of the point I made earlier about the relationship between subject studies and aspirations for jobs. For the year 1955/56 there was not a single Catholic in the Faculty of Agriculture. Graduates in Agriculture who wished to remain in Northern Ireland had only one major source of employment - the Department of Agriculture. I have talked to someone who had wished to enter the Faculty of Agriculture during that period when there was not a single Catholic student but who was persuaded against it by his family and teachers on the grounds that no Catholic could get a job in the Department of Agriculture and he subsequently took a course in an area of the humanities which he believed would enable him to get a job in Northern Ireland.

That Catholics live in very awkward areas where it is difficult to locate industries is another argument as to why the patterns of employment are what they are. Unquestionably, a greater proportion of Catholics than Protestants live in what could be broadly called peripheral areas but there are a number of awkward facts which anyone who wishes to place too much emphasis on this as a factor must consider. For example, West Belfast, which has an appallingly high level of Catholic unemployment, could hardly be described as a peripheral area with problems of distance from the main industrial centre. One would also have to explain why it was that, even in peripheral areas, there were major differences between levels of Protestant and Catholic unemployment. Indeed, in Carrickfergus, which is of course close to Belfast the Protestant unemployment rate in 1971 was higher than the Protestant unemployment rate in Fermanagh. At the same period the Protestant unemployment rate for Belfast was higher than the Protestant unemployment rate in Dungannon, Limavady or Omagh. So that living in a peripheral area does not appear to have had a major detrimental effect on Protestant levels of unemployment in those areas.

Family size is frequently cited as an explanation for the higher level of Catholic unemployment and lower levels of occupations. There are a number of arguments used by those who put forward this thesis. Firstly it is argued that Catholics coming from large families have pressure placed on them to start earning money quickly rather than to stay at school to get examinations or to take apprenticeships. Those who place much reliance on this argument would have to explain why it was that in numbers of occupations which require Catholics to stay at school for a considerable period of time or to take apprenticeships, Catholics did quite well, For example, why is it that Catholics were able to obtain apprenticeships in the construction industry but not in the engineering industry? Why is it that Catholics were able to do very well in middle class occupations which require a high level of education but where there were to some extent segregated professions, and therefore they could not easily have been discriminated against, such as teaching, dentistry, and to a lesser extent, law.

It is also argued that Catholics, because of the size of their families, had no incentive to work because of the high level of benefits. Much academic work and work by the Supplementary Benefits Board has shown, however, that levels of benefit have only a peripheral effect on the unwillingness of people to take jobs.

It is also argued that, because of family size, the requirement for jobs for Catholic school leavers were greater in proportion than the requirement of Protestant school leavers for jobs. I would not argue that this point is invalid but would suggest that, to some extent, the higher level of Catholic emigration which has been a constant feature of Northern Ireland life, although it showed some signs of diminishing in the 1960's, took care of this point.

Perhaps the most absurd argument of all to account for Catholic unemployment is that Catholics just happened to find themselves in those occupations which were more prone to unemployment and among those social classes which most experienced unemployment. This is, of course, true but is a circular argument which begs the question of why Catholics found themselves in those categories. The revisionist academics who attempt to argue that patterns of employment and unemployment show no evidence of discrimination or inequality show little sense of any knowledge whatsoever of the published history of Northern Ireland. For example, I would be the first to accept that what politicians say publicly is sometimes meaningless hot air but we are asked to believe that, when successive senior politicians such as Lord Brookeborough, exhorted their supporters not to employ Catholics, these exhortations had no effect whatsoever. We are also asked to believe that the reason why Catholics had such a low level of jobs in the public sector was because they were unwilling to take the jobs and that the fact that the published evidence shows that there was fairly constant pressure from the politicians to ensure that the tiny level of Catholic participation did not become any greater, had no effect.

I do not want to go into all the historical evidence for discriminatory speeches and statements but if we are asked to believe that they had no effect we are being asked to believe the impossible. Similarly, Dr Paul Compton recently stated on the radio that the reason for the low level of Catholic participation in the shipbuilding and engineering industry was probably because Catholics did not have the aptitude for those areas of employment. We are asked to believe, therefore, that the historical record of successful expulsion of Catholics from those areas of employment during times of tension and turmoil, which is the crudest form of discrimination, had no effect.

Turning now to the Fair Employment Act, there are two duties placed on the Agency.

  1. Promoting equality of opportunity in employment

  2. Working for the elimination of discrimination in employment.

Turning to the second and, I believe, less important duty first. The section of the Act dealing with the elimination of discrimination refers to individual acts of discrimination, that is to say, a case where a person applies for a job and does not get it because of his religion. There are a number of problems about this area of the Act. Firstly, there is a massive problem for the individual in that the Agency can only investigate a case where an individual makes a complaint. There are many reasons why individuals do not make complaints. Firstly, the individual may have no information whatsoever about who got the job and therefore, even in a case of the most blatant discrimination, he is not aware that anything untoward has happened. Secondly, the individual may fear that if he makes a complaint his future in the company or organisation may be prejudiced. There is of course protection under the act against victimisation for the individual but I would be foolish to pretend that I could guarantee that this protection would in all circumstances protect the individual. Thirdly, in the present climate in Northern Ireland, people are reluctant to be publicly identified with allegations of discrimination for obvious reasons.

The Agency's investigation of a complaint, of course, is done in private but if the Agency makes a finding in favour of the individual it is appealed in open court and the individual's name is likely to be plastered over all the newspapers.

Fourthly, the individual knows, having seen the experience in a number of cases, that there are difficulties in proving discrimination and that, even if the Agency finds in his favour, on appeal he is liable to the most rigorous cross-examination and made to feel that he is a fool or a bigot. It is extraordinary how many complainants' first comment when they approach the Agency is "I'm not a bigot".

The problems for the Agency are the problems of establishing discrimination. The process of selection is a somewhat subjective process and the margin of discretion legitimately permitted to interviewers is quite wide. For example, one can quite legitimately prefer a candidate who has a lot of qualifications but poor experience to someone with poor qualifications and a lot of experience. Similarly, one can quite legitimately prefer a candidate with a lot of experience and poor qualifications to one with a lot of qualifications and poor experience. There is, of course, then the highly subjective point of personality and to establish that an interviewer preferred a candidate because of his religion rather than his personality is difficult. Even where recruitment practices are such as to try to remove as much of the subjective element as possible by the use of detailed assessment forms, the County Court has in two cases ruled that even if members of a Selection Panel assessed a candidate as the top candidate they could legitimately vote for the candidate who came second on assessment when it comes to making a decision. The Court of Appeal, in the Timothy Duffy/Craigavon Borough Council case which followed a Court of Appeal decision in the Wallace sex discrimination case was of some assistance to the Agency in that it clarified the principle that, if a candidate was clearly the better candidate and did not get the job and was of a different religion from the successful candidate, it raised a prima facie case of religious discrimination and that, therefore, there was an obligation on the respondent to explain why he made his choice. In that case, therefore, where the facts were as black and white as they are ever likely to be, the Agency won its case but had the Council chosen to give an explanation as to why Duffy was not preferred, the Agency would have had to establish that that explanation was pretextual and that might, even in that black and white case, have been more difficult. Judges have held that the burden of proof which has to be discharged is that of balance of probabilities but they have taken the view that, while preserving that standard of proof, the more serious the charge the greater the care which has to be taken by the court before finding it proved. There is a fairly fine distinction between that and, in fact, saying that the standard of proof is higher than the balance of probabilities. It also raises the interesting question that, since in Northern Ireland society someone who is found guilty of religious discrimination is likely to go into the Golf Club that night and be bought a round of drinks in the midst of much merriment, therefore judges do not need to exercise the same degree of caution about sustaining a finding of sex discrimination as religious discrimination.

I would argue, therefore, in view of all of these difficulties that it requires the purest coincidence of one person having both a cast iron case and being willing to make a complaint for a case to be sustained. Many who have good cases are unaware that they have good cases or are unwilling to bring them Many who have not good cases or are unaware that they have not good cases are willing to bring them. The two things in one are rare.

I do not, however, regard this piece of the Act as being the most important part of the Act. Indeed I believe that, even if every single act of individual discrimination ended like magic on the day the Fair Employment Act was enacted, there would still be a massive problem of inequality of opportunity. The bulk of individual complaints come not from the areas of employment where the grossest imbalances take place but from areas where both communities have access to employment where therefore such imbalances are not so great.

The second part of the Act deals with the promotion of equality of opportunity and the Agency has various duties in connection with this. Equality of opportunity in employment is the opportunity to be considered and to be submitted for consideration for employment and to hold it on the same terms with access to all benefits connected with it and without being subjected to any detriment. In other words, if there are any obstacles which prevent people from obtaining employment in particular companies or organisations those are obstacles to equality of opportunity. If, for example, I had a company which for historical reasons which may have been due to direct discrimination has an exclusively Protestant labour force and if I ensure that all my people connected with recruitment do not discriminate it would make no difference whatsoever to the pattern of employment in my company unless I ensured that I removed all those practices which may prevent Catholics from applying such as the non-advertising of vacancies; the filling of vacancies by giving preference to relations of existing employees; the use of contacts in schools etc. exclusively in one section of the community Similarly, we would argue that a company which has an unbalanced labour force has a duty to undertake a programme of attempting to sell itself to that section of the community which is under-represented.

The research done by Messrs. Cormack, Osborne and Thompson in Belfast and Messrs. Darby and Murray in Derry and Strabane has shown clearly that the major factor in the way people get jobs is personal contact.3 In that situation imbalances are perpetuated. If I am a young man or woman in East Belfast whose father works in the Shipyard or brother works in an engineering factory there, my chances of getting a job in those companies will be much greater than those of a young man of similar qualifications in the Falls whose father is unemployed and his relations are unemployed or unskilled. A number of tools have been given to the Agency to promote equality of opportunity. Some of these are the tools of persuasion and education and others of enforcement. I would believe that the fundamental point required in examining equality of opportunity is monitoring the composition of the labour force and the applications and this is the single biggest problem which the Agency has. First of all the obtaining of this information is extremely difficult because most application forms do not ask for the religion of the individual although we would argue that they should We therefore have to obtain our information by making assessments of the religion of the individuals on the basis of other information We would argue that, in the main, this is a quite reliable method but it is a difficult and time consuming task. For example, it has been fairly well publicised that we are doing a major investigation into the composition of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. After an enormous amount of effort having been expended at considerable cost we now have the basic information which, if we are doing a sex discrimination investigation, would be available for us on the first day through published information.

The second problem about this type of information is that there is a great deal of sensitivity about it. Individuals, for reasons I can understand, regard their religion as a private matter and there is resentment at the idea of outsiders from the Fair Employment Agency going along looking at records and saying "you are a Protestant" an attribute which the individual might not, in many cases, accept. We would argue, of course, that when we make that assessment we are not making an assessment of the belief of the individual but about the community in which he has his origins. Nevertheless, it is unquestionably resented by people in both sections of the community.

Thirdly, employers during the early 70's became acclimatised to the idea of being "religion blind" and, in some cases, have attempted to remove from the application forms anything from which the religion might be deduced - a futile as well as unhelpful exercise. Their reasons for doing this are frequently motivated by the highest principles and there is a genuinely held puzzlement, if not resentment, at the Fair Employment Agency going along and saying that, far from doing this, they should actually attempt to establish what the religion of their employees is. I am sure that I need not tell an audience such as this that the frequently voiced view that we think "we have no problem here. We do not have a clue about the religion of our employees" is a contradiction. Judging by the reaction from many employers Hottentots are a section of the community most privileged in terms of employment because we are always told that "we couldn't care less whether a person is a Catholic, Protestant or Hottentot - he is welcome to work here". The job which the Agency has to do in terms of changing these types of attitude is a massive one and can only be done through the dual process of education and investigation. For this reason, not only have we run a considerable number of seminars throughout the country for different areas of managers, trade union officials and shop stewards, but we have also embarked on a substantial programme of investigations in both public and private sectors. To do the latter before we had laid the groundwork in terms of education would, I believe, have been wrong but to imagine that education is the only answer would, I believe, be equally wrong. Most managers, during the course of the seminars, came to accept that the Agency's view about monitoring, which goes against everything they had believed before, is reasonable but, having accepted it, in the hurly burly of industrial life, it has had, I believe, little impact.

Under the terms of our Act we are in a position to make recommendations which can ultimately be binding subject to the right of appeal, to companies with regard to practices which we believe deny equality of opportunity. Recommendations have been made to a significant number of major organisations and areas of employment and in some of these we are approaching the period when we are liable to challenge in the courts.

Examining the position as it is today in the Catholic community in terms of employment I would say, firstly, that in the public sector a considerable improvement has taken place and there are areas of employment where Catholics have significant representation at very senior levels where there was little or no representation in the past. There are, however, significant pockets where direct discrimination is still taking place in spite of our legislation, and it is our job to eliminate these. As far as the private sector is concerned I believe that the process of direct individual discrimination has substantially diminished but I believe that the problems of inequality of opportunity are still enormous.

Leaving aside the work which the Agency can do in terms of eliminating these inequalities there are two factors outside our control which still operate as a major disincentive to equality. These are, firstly, the general economic situation. In 1973 when this legislation was recommended, unemployment was running at around six per cent, Indeed, it would be true to say that there was, in effect, no Protestant unemployment at that time and that the major problem which many companies in Protestant areas were faced with was how they could tap the Catholic labour market in order to obtain their full complement of labour. There were, therefore, powerful economic reasons why companies should promote equality of opportunity. Those economic reasons are no longer there and, in a situation where few companies are expanding and many are contracting, a programme to promote equality of opportunity will have few direct measurable results in the short term.

Secondly, the security climate and the degree of tension in the community operate as major barriers to equality of opportunity In recent months some of the examples we have had where these have affected employment trends are as follows:-

Two young Catholic men in a major Protestant establishment in East Belfast told that if they did not get out they would go out in a box,

A young Catholic man in another mainly Protestant establishment in East Belfast who received a bullet in his coat wrapped up in a piece of paper telling him that the next one would be for him.

A Catholic man who worked in a mainly Protestant establishment in another area of Belfast received an anonymous telephone call to get out and look at his car which was parked outside the establishment and found it was smashed to pieces.

These are very recent cases but, of course, in the past ten years there have been many cases where the discrimination has been the ultimate, i.e., the killing of someone who happened to work in the wrong place

It would also be proper to mention that the killing of Protestant postmen, electricity workers, van drivers, lorry drivers, delivery men, in Border areas because of present or past connections with the security forces, are also crude ways in which equality of opportunity is denied.

The Agency can therefore move things along at a steady progressive pace but it cannot achieve major results in isolation where the economic climate and the community climate is hostile to all that the Agency is set up to achieve.

Return to publication contents


A. E. Alcock, New University of Ulster

In countries where cultural minorities exist in a compact area of the state the practice of using the civil service as an instrument for their protection in an employment and representational capacity is one whose scope varies widely. At one end of the spectrum there are those countries where respect for cultural minorities is relatively weak, and there is no obligation for the civil service to communicate with members of cultural minorities in a language other than the official one. Such is the situation in France. At the other end of the spectrum there is the situation in the Aaland Islands, an area of the Finnish state inhabited entirely by Swedish-speaking citizens, where the civil service is made up entirely by members of the Swedish minority. In between these two extremes the situation in multicultural countries such as Switzerland should be noted. In the Helvetian Republic the obligation is for members of the national civil service to be at least bilingual while in the cantons the local civil service uses the official language of that canton and in the case of bilingual cantons (or the trilingual canton of The Grisons) the same principle applies as with the national civil service. But neither in the case of the national civil service nor in the bilingual cantons or The Grisons is the principle of ethnic or linguistic proportions evoked with regard to employment. In Belgium, where the Flemish and Walloon communities inhabit generally compact and definable areas of the state, the two groups have their own civil services in parallel.

Only in Cyprus has an attempt been made to employ persons in the national civil service on a basis of ethnic proportions. The experience was unhappy and one of the causes of the break-up of the state. One of the reasons for this was that the proportions used in the civil service did not reflect the true proportions of the respective Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot populations.1

This paper will examine the attempts made since 1972 to recruit civil servants in national-level government offices operating in South Tyrol in order to bring about and preserve a ratio reflecting the proportions between the German-speaking, Italian-speaking and Ladin-speaking populations of that area. According to the 1971 census 62.9 per cent of the population was German-speaking, 33.3 per cent Italian-speaking, and 3.7 per cent Ladin-speaking, with, and this will take on more significance later, 0.1 per cent apparently belonging to none of the three above-mentioned groups.2 For the purposes of this paper, however, the German-speaking and Ladin-speaking populations will be taken together, giving that group 66.6 per cent.

References to "national-level government offices" include Posts and Telegraphs, the Railways, the Judiciary, Teachers, Social Security organisations and other government Ministries operating in the local area, such as the Treasury, Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Labour, Ministry of Housing, etc. The various Italian police forces are excluded because in Italy they are technically part of the Armed Forces. References to "provincial-level government offices" include the provincial administration of South Tyrol (or, to give its titles, the Province of Bozen for the German-speaking element, and the Province of Bolzano for Italians) as well as the administration of the 116 communes (local district councils) in the Province.

South Tyrol was taken away from Austria and given to Italy by the victorious Allies in 1919 following the first World War. The South Tyrolese, who formed 90 per cent of the population of the area,3 were very hostile to this transfer, and for two reasons. On the one hand, they had been denied the right of self-determination, one of the apparent bases of the post-war settlement. On the other hand, the award clearly contravened Point 9 of President Wilson's Fourteen Points, another apparent basis for the post-war settlement.4 The democratic government of Italy gave assurances that the cultural identity of the South Tyrolese would be respected, but declined to give such an undertaking with respect to the German character of the area.5 However, when the Fascists came to power Mussolini tried to denationalise the German character not only of the area but of the local population as well. A policy of cultural genocide was adopted; industry - and an Italian industrial proletariat to work it - was sent to what had been an entirely agricultural area; and the administration became exclusively Italian. Italian was the only language used in public offices and was the only language used in schools. South Tyrolese were excluded from serving in public offices and from working in industry.6 By the time of the outbreak of the Second World War the South Tyrolese percentage of the population had fallen to 75 per cent, and by 1943 to just over 60 per cent.7

After the Second World War the South Tyrolese sought to return to Austria, but, for a number of reasons, the victorious Allies decided that Italy should keep the area.8 However, the Allies, aware of the measures undertaken by Mussolini against the German-speaking population, promoted a treaty between Austria and Italy in 1946 under which South Tyrol could have an autonomy, including its own Parliament.9 Some of the articles of the treaty are relevant to this paper:

Article 1:
"German-speaking inhabitants of the Bolzano Province and of the neighbouring bilingual townships of the Trento Province will be assured a complete equality of rights with Italian-speaking inhabitants within the framework of special provisions to safeguard the ethnical character and the cultural and economic development of the German-speaking element.

In accordance with legislation already enacted or awaiting enactment the said German-speaking citizens will be granted in particular:

(a) ...

(b) ...

(c) ...

(d) equality of rights as regards the entering upon public offices with a view to reaching a more appropriate proportion of employment between the two ethnical groups.

Article 2:
"The population of the above-mentioned zones will be granted the exercise of autonomous legislative and executive regional power. The frame within which the said provisions of autonomy will apply, will be drafted in consultation also with local representative German-speaking elements."

But the Italians were afraid, with reason, that the South Tyrolese had not given up the idea of self-determination which, at that time, was considered as a separatist concept.10 Therefore the Autonomy Statute which was promulgated in 1948.11 to give effect to the Austro-Italian treaty combined the two Provinces of Bolzano and Trento into one Region, Trentino-Alto Adige, but maintaining the Provinces as separate identities with powers of their own. However, since the Province of Trento had a larger population than that of Bolzano, and, in addition, was 99% Italian, the Italians had a two-thirds majority in the Region as a whole while the South Tyrolese enjoyed a similar majority in Bolzano. What was decisive was that the powers of the Region were wide; those of the Provinces miserable. The Region controlled agriculture, tourism, industrial development. The Provinces could legislate in the fields of Fairs and Markets, Local Activity in the Arts, Handicrafts. The economic and social development of the German-speaking South Tyrolese was therefore in the hands of the Italian region, behind which lay the Italian state.

The problems with Article 1(d) of the Austro-Italian Treaty were five. First, what were "public offices"? Did they refer to the provincial administration only, or did they also include state offices operating in the Province of Bolzano? Second, what was meant by the words "a more appropriate proportion of employment"? Third, once the words "a more appropriate proportion of employment" had been defined, how would one go about achieving it when, as a legacy of Fascism, all the civil servants in the Province were Italian? Fourth, what method should be used for ascertaining the true proportions between the two ethnic groups? Fifth, was 'equality of rights" the best way of going about getting "a more appropriate proportion of employment" in public offices?

The period between 1948 and 1969 was characterised, on the one hand, by Italian slowness in implementing the Autonomy Statute and ignoring the economic development of the Province of Bolzano. They refused to apply the principle of ethnic proportions in state offices operating in the Province outright,12 but allowed it (eventually) in the provincial administration and the communes. This refusal to apply ethnic proportions in state offices was linked to the fact that Italians would have to leave the service to make way for South Tyrolese, but to the extent that it was unlikely that they would find alternative employment in the Province it would mean that those who left would actually have to leave the Province. When one took into account that those departing would be taking with them their wives and children, there was the real fear that departures in large numbers of civil servants would lead to a serious weakening of the italianità of the Province of Bolzano. On the other hand, there was the legacy of Fascism's denationalisation policy - the sharp contrast between the economic and social situation of the two ethnic groups.

The Italians were to be found in the towns, in industry. The Fifties and Sixties were boom years. Industry was doing well. The civil service, national and provincial, was well paid with good pensions. The South Tyrolese, on the other hand, were overwhelmingly farmers, mostly on poor alpine farms. Unfortunately, the agricultural sector was stagnant and, except for the prosperous fruit and wine farms, in decline. Between 1951 and 1971 the active population in agriculture would decline from 62,000 (42 per cent of the active population) to 31,000 (21 per cent), and the problem was how to absorb those coming off the land.13

The fact was that all the levers of job mobility were in the hands of the Italian state or Italian-dominated region - money for housing; economic development policy-making and decision-making. And it was that that sparked off the struggle by the South Tyrolese (which involved some terrorism orchestrated from Austria and West Germany by neo-nazis) to have their province raised to the status of a region, with all the accompanying powers of economic development. This included the demand for ethnic proportions in state offices and institutions operating in the Province - a source of some 15,000 well-paid and pensionable jobs, as well as the right to serve in the Province - i.e., that one should not be transferred against one's will to serve elsewhere in Italy.14

Why was it that the South Tyrolese insisted on having ethnic proportions in state public offices, a principle that ran counter to that of "equality of rights"? "Equality of Rights" had been inserted into the 1946 Austro-Italian treaty in order to ensure that fascist-type discrimination against the South Tyrolese should not be repeated, but the South Tyrolese felt that members of a 0.5 per cent minority in the Italian state would have little chance of getting jobs in open competition against the 99.5 per cent Italian majority, and they frankly wanted their own kind to work and help in the running of their homeland.

In 1969 the South Tyrolese very largely got their way. By an agreement between them and the Austrian and Italian governments known as the "Paket", although the Region Trentino-Alto Adige was maintained, the Provinces of Bolzano and Trento got almost all the important powers regarding the economy, and the South Tyrolese also obtained the right to have ethnic proportions in state institutions operating in the Province (with the exception of the police) and the right of South Tyrolese employees in these institutions not to be transferred out of the Province against their will.

All these concessions were contained in a revised Autonomy Statute which was promulgated in 1972.15 Ten years later, how had things turned out in practice? The answer: very differently.

One of the most important issues in any divided society is that of group and individual identification. In South Tyrol it was vital for the individual to identify himself with one of the three linguistic groups in the Province.

One went to the school of one's group.

Public housing was allocated on the principle of ethnic proportions.

As a teacher one taught in a school of one's language group (unless one taught one's language in a school of another group).

Posts in the provincial administration were allocated on the basis of ethnic proportions.

Key posts depended on membership of a group in the sense that if a senior post was held by a member of one group his deputy had to come from the other group.

Since government, both of the province as a whole and the 116 communes. was based on the principle of sharing power between the three main groups, the composition of the governments in question had to reflect the ethnic proportions of the elected representatives, which meant that unless one was a member of one of the groups in question one could not stand for office.

Since the whole system depended, first, on knowing what the ethnic proportions in the Province were, and second, on the individual declaring his ethnic allegiance, how were these matters handled? And here the first problems arose.

In Italy the first post-war census, 1951, did not ask the individual inhabitants of South Tyrol to what group he or she belonged. This question was not asked until the 1961 (and 1971) censuses. But in the 1948 Autonomy Statute's implementation the Italian government had conceded the principle of ethnic proportions in the provincial administration. How did one know what these were?

The answer was to take the ethnic proportions amongst the elected representatives of the provincial parliament.16 At the time this was quite normal. Italians and South Tyrolese in the Province disliked each other cordially. The South Tyrolese were angered at having to remain with Italy and at having the economic and social development of themselves and their homeland in the hands of the Italians. The South Tyrolese had their own political party which drew regularly over 95 per cent of the German ethnic vote, and to vote, let alone stand for an Italian party was simply ethnic treason. For the Italians the memory of the war and the German occupation and the availability of the whole spectrum of political parties from the neo-fascists on the right to parties more extreme than the communists on the left ensured that they too voted and stood ethnically. In the period 1952 to 1969 the South Tyrolese group regularly provided 68 per cent of the vote, with 32 per cent going to the Italians. These percentages were not quite the 66.6 per cent of the 1961 and 1971 censuses but was near enough.

But then in the Seventies the situation changed. In the 1973 provincial elections the P.C.I. ran a German-speaking candidate and he was elected, with the result that the German-speaking group now had 71 per cent of the elected representatives. And in the 1978 elections both the P.C.I. and the New Left successfully ran German-speaking candidates, thus raising that group's proportion up to 74 per cent. Not only was this a not inconsiderable departure from the actual ethnic proportions in the Province, but it contrasted with the way ethnic proportions were calculated for posts in the state administration in the Province, which was, of course, on the basis of the census.

However, in recent years a second problem has been becoming serious, one that concerned the question of the ethnic allegiance of the individual in South Tyrol.

As previously mentioned, in the Fifties and Sixties everyone not only knew to what group he belonged but was proud of it. In those years almost the entire Italian population of the Province was an immigrant one - from Venice, Milan, Trento, or further south. And for reasons of ethnic solidarity mixed marriages were few and far between. The South Tyrolese were adamantly hostile to them because they feared - and research tended to support them - that the children of mixed marriages would turn out to be more "Italian" than "German".

But by the Seventies things were changing. First, an ever-increasing number of Italians were now native-born South Tyrolers, or, as they called themselves- "Altoatesini". Second, the number of mixed marriages began to rise, bringing into question the ethnic identity of the child.

Under the 1972 Autonomy Statute it was laid down that for the system of ethnic protection to operate everyone had to give a formal declaration at the time of the census (the next one being in 1981) which would be registered and held by the individual's commune.17 But the New Left party began to question just why anyone should - by law -be obliged to give a declaration as to which group he or she belonged if that person either did not want or felt he could not adequately reply. The Party pointed out that in the 1971 census nearly 500 persons declared that they did not belong to any of the three groups in the Province (they were Slovenes, or Hungarians, and some were Englishwomen who had married South Tyrolese or Altoatesini). For these to have to declare that they belonged to one group or another would mean forcible assimilation. The Party pointed out that there were now some 4,000 mixed marriages in the Province, involving some 12,000 children, most of them perfectly bilingual. Why should they be forced to choose the cultural identity of one of their parents if they felt equally at home in both cultures? This too amounted to forced assimilation. And in any case, since the parents had to give a declaration for their children, how would one decide to which group the child belonged? Under the Family Law Reform Act of 197518 this right no longer belonged to the father alone but to the parents jointly. What if they could not agree? What if the parents agreed but the child disagreed with their choice? Yet it was vital for a choice to be made since failure to do so would in the future - or at least until the next census (one had the right to change from one census to another) - entail substantial loss of rights in jobs, housing and political representation.

The New Left therefore wanted to know why any resident of the Province should not have the right to decide not to belong to one of the three language groups but simply be considered South Tyrolese or Altoatesini in the broadest sense of the word without suffering the consequences.19 The Party also provided the powerful argument that loss of rights because of the inability or unwillingness to declare that one belonged to one of the three language groups in the Province was incompatible with Article 3 of the Italian Constitution, which provided for equality of rights for all citizens without distinction as to sex, race, religion, political belief - or language!

The Party decided to test this issue, so at the time of the 1978 Provincial elections, one NL candidate declared that he belonged to no group and one declared that he belonged to both the German and Italian groups. Both were disqualified, and an appeal to the Council of State was rejected only on the technical grounds that they had not appealed within the given time.20 NL candidates were disqualified for the same reasons at the time of the 1980 commune elections. Their appeal is still being heard.

The New Left have been undertaking a campaign against the obligation to give the appropriate declaration at the time of the 1981 census (scheduled for October), urging people not to give it. If substantial numbers of people follow their advice then a serious situation will arise: the whole system of ethnic proportions, which was designed to protect the German-speaking population in the Italian state would be in jeopardy because the Italian government could hardly ignore loss of rights for large numbers. One way out has been to propose that those who cannot or will not give the declaration to be classed automatically with the Italian group. They would then have the rights of that group. On the other hand, they would be assimilated", which they might neither like or agree to.

Following the question of ethnic identity, the next big problem to arise was also one not considered at the time the fight for an improved autonomy was taking place.

Under the 1972 Autonomy Statute ethnic proportions in the various state administrations operating in the Province had to be achieved by the year 2002.21 Excluding teachers and police forces this involved just over 7,100 posts, and in 1975 some 6,000 were filled - 5,100 by Italians and 900 by South Tyrolese.22 But the South Tyrolese had a right to 4,750 posts and the Italians to 2,350. The task, therefore, was to reduce the Italian presence by some 2,700 posts and increase the South Tyrolese presence by some 3,850.

It never occurred to anyone - South Tyrolese or Italian - to ask what would happen if the South Tyrolese, who had fought so bitterly to have posts in the state administration operating in the Province filled in ethnic proportions, and thus appeared to have won a rich source of employment for the group, as well as the right to serve only in the Province, should fail to take advantage of it. Yet this is what happened: far fewer South Tyrolese than expected applied for jobs, fewer passed the appropriate exams, and fewer still actually took up the post if successful. The most recent figures show that only 71 per cent of posts reserved for South Tyrolese were competed for, only 51 per cent passed the exams, and only 56 per cent of the successful candidates then took up the job. With regard to the Italian group, if twice as many competed as there were jobs for them, only one-third passed the exams, and less than half the successful candidates subsequently took up their post.23 Why was this?

Essentially there were four reasons. First, there was the imprint of tradition. It was hard for German-speaking Italians to overcome the tradition of not having worked in state employment for over 50 years, having been first excluded by the Fascists in the interwar period and then experiencing the difficulties of "equality of rights" and the possibility of transfer out of the Province in the normal course of duty in the postwar period.

Second, there was competition from other sectors of employment, in particular the provincial administration, the teaching profession and tourism.

With its increased powers, the provincial administration needed more staff, and the numbers employed by it rose from 1,100 in 1968 to 5,100 in 1979 - 4,000 posts, of which nearly 3,000 would be for South Tyrolese. And from the psychological point of view South Tyrolese would rather work in the provincial administration since one would be helping to administer one's homeland.

As for the teaching profession, in the mid-sixties the Italian government introduced obligatory secondary education so the number of pupils almost doubled as did the demand for teachers.24

But the biggest threat of all came from the tourist sector. In the seventies the Province enjoyed a colossal boom in tourism. Among the factors contributing to this boom were the opening of the Brenner Pass autobahn, which made South Tyrol easily accessible to southern Germany in a matter of a few hours; the rise in the value of the Deutsche Mark and the fall in the value of the Lira; West German financial investment, which had led, amongst other things to the construction of no less than nine new ski areas; the ease with which tourist operators were able to avoid paying tax; and the new situation derived from the 1972 Autonomy Statute under which the Province of Bolzano was able to claim 1.6 per cent of almost all Italian government public expenditure. The result was a huge inflow of money which enabled the Provincial government to help borrowers by paying part of the interest on bank loans which, besides being plentiful were hence-forth to be cheap.

The first result was a tremendous expansion in the number of hotels, Pensions, Garnis, swimming-pools, saunas, tennis courts, etc. Second, everyone wanted to own his own tourist business, and many ceased their original trade or occupation. Under these circumstances a career in the state civil service also seemed far less attractive.

Three statistics highlight the situation of the Province in 1979. It was believed that with a local population of less than 500,000 the number of overnight stays amounted to about 26 million.25 It was believed that the Province had more tourist beds than the whole of Greece. The unemployment rate fell to 0.1 per cent.

Unfortunately, the Italian population did not benefit from the boom. As newcomers they owned less than 2 per cent of the land, and very little in the main tourist areas, so they were not involved in either the construction or the owning of tourist establishments. But not only did they not benefit from the boom, they were hit by its adverse effects - the inflation which gave South Tyrol the highest rate of inflation in all Italy. Whereas the rural South Tyrolese were now, in the Seventies, benefiting from tourism (including agro-tourism) as well as agricultural subsidies from the E.E.C., and thus able to keep up with inflation, the Italians in the Province were still concentrated in industry, which was now suffering from inflation and the high cost of raw materials, and the civil service, which was now relatively less well paid and whose pensions were not keeping up with inflation, quite apart from the fact that the Italian presence in it was going to be sharply reduced over the next decades.

But if there was a general reluctance to compete amongst the South Tyrolese, why did relatively few pass the entrance exams? One answer concerned the competition itself. The most important part of this was a language exam. One of the provisions implementing the 1972 Autonomy Statute was that anyone in state employment in the Province (as well as in the provincial administration and that of the communes) had to be in possession of a certificate of competency in both German and Italian. This applied to everyone without exception, not only Directors-General but also cooks, janitors and chauffeurs.26 The certificate was granted after an exam which was harder or easier depending on the grade competed for.

As it happened, the Italian group was far harder hit by the language competition than the South Tyrolese. The obligation not only to be bilingual but to be able to prove it had been insisted upon by the South Tyrolese in the negotiations leading up to the new Autonomy Statute because although Italians formed one-third of the population of the Province very few knew German, or indeed, had felt that they needed to know it.

To begin with, it was not obligatory for Italian schools in the Province to teach German, although to be fair most of them did so. It had not been made obligatory for persons to know German for employment in the provincial administration until 1959. It was not obligatory either to use or to know German in state employment, in industry or in the free professions, and it was in these sectors that the Italian group was overwhelmingly concentrated. In private life there was little contact between the groups: daily activities involving the home, church, sport, school, theatre or cinema were carried on by each group independently of the other. There were few incentives to learn German. A bilingual bonus for employees in the state administration was introduced in 1961,27 but the exam to obtain it was considered to be derisory (which was why the South Tyrolese wanted a real exam) and in any case the amount of the bonus was not changed until 1980, 50 that its value in 1961 terms was equally derisory.28 In any case, Italian was, of course, the official language; German was only "parified" to it, and after the war Italians were reluctant to take up the culture of a country associated with the sinister events of the second World War. Finally, with respect to Italians in the state administration, there would equally be a reluctance to learn German if their posting in South Tyrol was not likely to be permanent but merely a tour of duty.

It was therefore a real shock for the Italian group to wake up in the Seventies and realise that if they wanted to participate in the life of the Province they would have to improve dramatically their knowledge of German life, language and culture. The reverse applied far less to South Tyrolese who, as Italian citizens, had to learn Italian in schools, traded with Italians, worked with them, and did Italian military service.

Finally, why did so few South Tyrolese actually take up employment after having been successful in the exam? Amongst the reasons put forward, one stressed that most of the posts were to be found in the capital of the Province, the town of Bolzano, where there was a chronic housing shortage, while a second pointed out that the actual recruitment mechanism was extremely slow: from the moment of application until taking up an appointment meant spending an average waiting period of well over a year, in which time the candidate might well obtain - and remain in - another job.29

There were three results of this extraordinary situation First, in a period of high unemployment in Italy, vacancies existed in large numbers in certain public services but these could not be filled. Second, some administrations, especially the Postal Service and the Railways were on the verge of collapse because of the shortage of staff. Third, in a complete negation of the spirit of ethnic protection which the system of ethnic proportions was meant to instill, members of the Italian group, seeing that job prospects were far better amongst the German-speaking group, began sending their children to German-speaking schools and declaring themselves as "German".

Return to publication contents


Click on the icon to return to the text reference.


1 R. Miller, Attitudes to Work in Northern Ireland, Fair Employment Agency Research Paper 2, 1978

2 R D Osborne and R C Murray, Educational Qualifications and Religious Affiliation in Northern Ireland, Fair Employment Agency Research Paper 2, 1978

3 R J Cormack, R D Osborne and W T Thompson, Into Work? Young School Leavers and the Structure of Opportunity in Belfast, Fair Employment Agency Research Paper 5, 1980; D Murray and J Darby, Expectations of School Leavers in Derry and Strabane, Research Paper 6, 1980


1 Although Turkish Cypriots formed 18 per cent of the population of the Republic, they had 30 per cent of the seats in the unicameral House of Representatives, the Council of Ministers, the civil service and security forces, and 40 per cent of the Army. Alcock, A. E., "Three case-studies in minority protection: South Tyrol, Cyprus, Quebec" in Hepburn, A. C., Minorities in History, London, Arnold, 1978, pp. 205-208.

2 Autonome Provinz Bozen, Südtirol-Handbuch, Sonderdruck zür Informationschift des Landtages und der Landesregierung 1979.

3 Alcock, A. E., The History of the South Tyrol Question, London, Michael Joseph, 1970, Table D and Notes, pp. 496-497.

4 This point referred to the need to readjust the frontiers of Italy "along clearly recognisable lines of nationality".

5 Alcock, Op.cit., p.32.

6 Alcock, ibid., pp. 33-45.

7 Alcock, ibid., Table D and Notes, pp. 496-497.

8 Among these reasons were, first, the need to reward Italy in some way for changing sides in 1943 - it was going to lose some territory and its colonies, and second, there were doubts about the future of Austria (then under Four-Power occupation).

9 The De Gasperi-Gruber Agreement of 5 September 1946.

10 See, for example, statements by leading Austrians in Tiroler Nachrichten 9 September 1946, Volkszeitung 9 September 1946, Tiroler Tageszeitung 19 September 1946.

11 Constitutional Law of 26 February 1948, n.5.

12 D.P.R. of 30 June 1951, n.574, Article 67; Decision of the Constitutional Court of 4 July 1958, n.12; Alcock, op.cit., p.276.

13 Südtirol-Handbuch 1979, p. 107.

14 See for example the draft statute for a South Tyrol Region submitted to Italian Parliament by the Südtiroler Volkspartei in February 1958 in the English edition of the Austrian Memorandum to the United Nations concerning the South Tyrol Question of 5 September 1960, Annex 6.

15 D.P.R. of 31 August 1972, n.6, Article 29.

16 P.L. of 3 July 1959, n.6, Article 29.

17 D.P.R. of 26 July 1976, n.752, Article 18.

18 Law of 19 May 1975, n.151, Article 144.

19 Alto Adige, 7 July 1979.

20 Alto Adige, 6 July 1979.

21 D.P.R. of 26 July 1976, n.752, Article 46.

22 Peterlini, 0., Der ethnische Proporz in Südtirol, Bozen, Athesia, 1980, Table 28, p. 85.

23 Mumelter, N., Die Selbstbehauptung der Südtiroler, Vienna, Eckartschriften n.73, 1980, p 71.

24 Peterlini, op.cit., pp. 159-161.

25 Südtiroler Wirtschaftzeitung, 25 January 1980.

26 D.P.R. of 26 July 1976, n.752, Article 1.

27 Law of 23 October 1961, n.1165

28 Law of 13 August 1980, n.454.

29 Peterlini, op.cit., pp. 159-161.

© Centre for the Study of Conflict and the Author(s)
Last Modified by Martin Melaugh :

Back to the top of this page