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Text: A M Gallagher ... Page Design: Fionnuala McKenna

Majority Minority Review 2
Employment, Unemployment and Religion in Northern Ireland

by A M Gallagher

Section 10: The Question of Discrimination


Section nine examined evidence on the extent to which geographical, demographic, educational and industrial factors might explain the unemployment gap between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. This section continues this discussion with an examination of the evidence on the role of discrimination. Although discussion on the role of discrimination in employment opportunity has been of long standing (see section one) it gained a new impetus in the debates preceding the 1989 Fair Employment Act (see section eleven). In this period some of the most detailed studies on employment processes in Northern Ireland were carried out and it is largely the results of this work that is examined in this section.

Most discussion on discrimination in Northern Ireland has drawn a distinction between direct and indirect discrimination, and the evidence on both is discussed separately below. As Osborne and Cormack (1983) have pointed out, the term discrimination is 'highly emotive and invites sharply contrary opinions' (p227), for which reason they preferred to use the term disadvantage. This focus side-steps the issue of discrimination and concentrates rather on contemporary evidence on the relative positions of the two communities: if that evidence indicates a relative disadvantage for one community then ameliorative social policy can be based on the criterion of need. However, while a concentration on evidence of disadvantage can legitimise certain social policies, it avoids the question of why that disadvantage developed in the first place, which brings us back to the evidence discussed in section nine and below. Avoiding the 'why' question would probably be unproblematic if there was a consensus that contemporary disadvantage was due to policies or practices in the past that were, themselves, wrong.

The view that there was discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland has been articulated much more widely than the alternative views that either discrimination did not exist or that any discrimination that did exist was justified. Before proceeding to examine the research evidence on the role of discrimination in Northern Ireland, it would be of value to examine the limited material available on this alternative argument.


In the immediate period after the outbreak of the current phase of the conflict in Northern Ireland, there appeared to be a widespread acceptance of the claims of the Civil Rights Movement that there had been inequality of treatment of the Catholic minority. However, as Nelson (1975) has pointed out, this view did not find general acceptance within the 'accused community itself - the Ulster Protestant majority' (pl55). In his 1968 survey, for example, Richard Rose found that three-quarters of Catholics agreed that Catholics were treated unfairly in Northern Ireland, while three-quarters of Protestants disagreed with this view (Rose, 1971).

Nelson (1975) went beyond survey responses to examine Protestants' attitudes to the issue of discrimination against Catholics through discussion. She found that initially most respondents denied discrimination had ever existed, but went on to qualify this initial denial to the extent that 'all respondents had admitted to some forms of anti-Catholic discrimination at least by the conclusion of the interview' (pl60).

Nelson found that many respondents, having denied that discrimination existed at all, would then suggest that discrimination was inevitable and everyone, including nationalists, looked after their own:

... many Protestants simply did not look upon certain practices as 'discrimination' at all - for example, in private employment ... They just accepted them as an inevitable and natural part of life. Thus they had never thought of 'complaining' about Catholic discrimination until Catholics started lamenting Protestant discrimination! (pl73).
Nelson found that very few respondents argued that discrimination was 'right' although some were prepared to argue that it was 'justified', on the grounds that Catholics did not have the motivation to work well for Northern Ireland, or 'necessary', in order to defend Northern Ireland from 'takeover'. She found infrequent use of character stereotypes asserting the innate inferiority of 'the other side', in comparison with 'memories of atrocities' which enhanced the need for community solidarity:
History provides several sound reasons why one community should not trust to the goodwill of the other: the present conflict has provided many more, and an infinite number of bitter memories… Protestants and Catholics were people who fought each other (P178)
Such views may have been most likely in the early 1970s. the period when the deaths due to the violence in Northern Ireland reached their peak and the Northern Ireland parliament, so long the guarantor of Unionist power, was prorogued by the Westminster parliament. However, similar themes recur in more recent accounts which argue that discrimination was never the problem claimed by the Civil Rights Movement.

Campbell (nd). in a pamphlet published in the late 1980s, argued that Government policy had created a situation where Protestants were being discriminated against in employment and cited some statistics from FEA investigations as evidence. Campbell suggested that the unemployment differential between Protestants and Catholics could be explained by the high Catholic birth-rate and by the greater employment-relevance of the curricula of Protestant schools.

Kingsley (1989) offered a 'Loyalist analysis of the civil rights controversy' which attempted to rebut the claims of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s. For example, in denying that Londonderry Corporation had discriminated against Catholics in employment, he suggested that Catholics were employed in manual jobs and were only under-represented among white-collar jobs because they refused to apply for them: this he attributed to their lack of support for the state in Northern Ireland (Pp91-95). Kingsley pointed to Catholics' insistence on maintaining separate schools (Pp93-94) and their higher birth-rate (Ppl13-115) as contributory factors to high Catholic unemployment. In addition, Kingsley suggested that, in local government and private employment, Catholics discriminated against Protestants to a much greater extent than vice-versa:

It was difficult to find a Catholic employer who didn't practise discrimination and the norm was for Protestants to be completely excluded from the workplace. On the other hand firms employed Catholics and often in very large numbers ... (p98).

These revisionist arguments received an airing in a debate in the pages of the British Journal of Sociology that stretched over six years. Hewitt (1981) argued that the violence in Northern Ireland was less to do with Catholic grievances than with resurgent Catholic nationalism. As part of this argument Hewitt claimed that discrimination against Catholics in employment had occurred, but there had been countervailing discrimination by Catholics against Protestants and the level of discrimination against Catholics had, in any case, been exaggerated. In addition, Hewitt argued that high Catholic unemployment could be explained, in part, by geographical and demographic factors.

Using alternative analyses of Hewitt's data, and alternative data altogether, O'Hearn (1983) argued that the level of discrimination against Catholics had not been exaggerated and that Catholic grievances more generally were important in the outbreak of violence. A series of papers continued this debate (Hewitt, 1983; O'Hearn, 1985; Hewitt, 1985; Hewitt, 1987; O'Hearn, 1987) and while the terrain of the argument shifted during its course, no common conclusion was reached. In fact a review of the debate (Kovalcheck, 1987) suggested that neither side had considered the full importance of the employment issue as a spark to the violence, as distinct from other areas of Catholic grievance including franchise-rights, boundary gerrymandering and housing policy.

Having briefly considered the arguments that discrimination, of any kind, against Catholics was either non-existent or exaggerated, the remainder of this section will consider the research evidence and debates on the role of indirect and direct discrimination in Northern Ireland.


In the discussions that led to the framing of the 1976 Fair Employment Act a differentiation was made between direct and indirect discrimination (see section one): the former refers to intentional discrimination, for example a bar on Catholics, while the latter refers to procedures that could have the effect of discriminating against a section of the population whether or not the intent exists, for example favouring ex-members of the Boys Brigade (a Protestant youth organisation). A commonly cited source of indirect discrimination is informal recruitment methods, such as word-of-mouth recruitment: thus, if a workforce had an imbalance of one community and informal networks were in wide-spread use for recruitment then it is likely that the imbalance would be maintained.

For some years the clearest illustration of the effect of indirect discrimination was provided by the two studies mentioned in section nine which followed the experiences of groups of school leavers (Cormack et al., 1980; Murray and Darby, 1980). Both studies showed that informal networks were widely used by leavers from Protestant and Catholic schools, but because unemployment was higher among the families of the Catholic beavers, the Protestant leavers were more successful in obtaining employment. Compton (1981) suggested that this evidence alone provided rather tenuous grounds for claiming any widespread prevalence for such processes, although more recent evidence has become available.

Between 1982 and May, 1989, the Fair Employment Agency published thirty-two investigations of employment patterns in individual companies or areas of economic activity. These investigations have the limited purpose of determining the number and percentage of Protestants and Catholics in workplaces. Many revealed evidence of workforces with disproportionate representation of one community and these imbalances were often linked with loosely structured recruitment procedures. While these investigations did not provide evidence of systematic indirect discrimination, they do suggest that the problem is not limited to a small number of instances.

Jenkins (1983) reported a study of young Protestants in a Belfast estate: he found that informal networks, in particular personal contacts, provided one of the commonest ways of obtaining jobs (Jenkins, 1983, p72) and went on to argue that these informal systems had a particular value to employers (Pp 100-13). Jenkins argued that employers used at least two distinct sets of criteria in recruitment. The first set were functionally specific and were referred to as 'suitability' criteria: thus, an employer would assess whether a prospective employee had the qualifications or experience required for the job. 'Suitability' criteria can be thought of as relating to formal recruitment procedures.

Jenkins described the second set as functionally non-specific and termed them 'acceptability' criteria, which included the interviewers 'gut feeling', or the interviewee's manner, appearance, work record or circumstances. Clearly there is a greater element of subjective judgement involved in such criteria: for example, he suggested that some employers found a married man with children and a mortgage more acceptable than a single man without a mortgage, on the grounds that the former was more likely to remain in his job and work harder. Recruitment through personal contacts is a way of operationalising the 'acceptability' criteria both because it deals with the reputations of the job-seeker and the recommender. Furthermore, the recommended is under an unstated obligation to account for the performance of the new recruit, thus providing the employer with a controlling mechanism.

Further evidence was provided by a number of other research reports that have measured the extent to which informal networks continue to play a role in recruitment. Maguire (1986; 1990) showed that informal networks were used in recruitment to a large electronics firm in Belfast, even though that firm had a formal recruitment procedure; McWhirter et al. (1989), in a study of a cohort of school leavers in the 1980s, found that family networks were widely used in order to obtain employment. A recent report from the Equal Opportunities Commission (Maguire, 1989) included a survey of over 200 women in the retail trade in Northern Ireland: the survey found that 60% of full-time workers and 70% of part-time workers obtained their jobs from informal sources, which included direct approaches to employers, contacts among friends and relatives, and local advertising.

Chambers (1987) reported the results of a survey of employers on equal opportunity issues. Chambers found that few of the employers surveyed had any form of equal opportunity policy and most were unaware of Department of Manpower Services guidelines on equal opportunities in the workplace. In addition, the survey found widespread use of informal procedures, in particular for promotion, and a general lack of impact of Fair Employment Agency investigations, apart from the organisations that had been the focus of enquiry.

The evidence on indirect discrimination is not unequivocal, but the evidence is of such an extent that it would be foolish to ignore it as an issue. Indeed, it could be taken as one of the failures of the 1976 Fair Employment Act that there, is little evidence that many employers seriously adopted fair employment initiatives until such times as a FEA investigation was mounted. On balance, therefore, it would seem appropriate to suggest that indirect discrimination has played a role in maintaining the unemployment gap between the communities, if only because the existence of indirect discrimination helps to maintain and reproduce relative advantage for Protestants in the labour market.


Direct discrimination occurs when a person is intentionally denied employment, or provided with employment, on the basis of some characteristic that is unrelated to the job sought. The 1976 Fair Employment Act made such direct discrimination, on the basis of religious affiliation or political belief, illegal in Northern Ireland, even in circumstances where an employer denied someone a job for benign reasons: for example, an employer might have felt that in a predominantly Protestant workforce, it might not be safe for a Catholic to be employed (or vice-versa). Under the 1976 Act this consideration was insufficient and illegal to apply. (It should be noted that certain occupations were exempt from the Act, such as teachers and the clergy, and it was possible for the Secretary of State to provide exemptions on security grounds.) The Fair Employment Agency had, as one of its roles, the investigation of claims of direct discrimination.

In practice it is extremely difficult to prove direct discrimination. In addition, the FEA has found itself caught between those who felt it was an unnecessary sop to Catholics and those who felt it was a toothless tiger (Cormack and Osborne, 1983, Pps228-23 1). The FEA has had to deal with less than 1,000 allegations of discrimination since 1976 and in only a small proportion of these has the Agency situation found grounds to proceed to court. This has led some commentators to suggest that direct discrimination is not an issue of any importance (Doherty, 1981, p122). Notwithstanding this, recent attitude surveys show evidence of a widespread belief that discrimination continues to play a role in employment in Northern Ireland (Smith, 1987b) and the two most recent research studies on employment issues in Northern Ireland both attached some importance to discrimination (Smith, 1987a; Eversley, 1989).

In addition there is a critical literature on employment issues that continues to assert the importance of direct discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland (Farrell, 1980; O'Dowd et al, 1980; Rolston and Tomlinson, 1988; McCormack and O'Hara, 1990). One of the factors highlighted in this literature is the role of intimidation in maintaining sectarian boundaries in certain workplaces both in the past (Farrell, 1980, Pp28, 139, 173) and the present (Rolston and Tomlinson, 1988, Pp63-7). Given that this factor often has the effect of discouraging people from seeking employment in certain workplaces it is extremely difficult to quantify (Eversley, 1989, p215). Also, certain intimidatory practices have their origins within the workforce rather than from employers (SACHR, 1987, Pps32-34).

As part of its review of the 1976 Fair Employment Act, the Standing Advisory Commission for Human Rights (SACHR) commissioned a series of research studies on employment and unemployment in Northern Ireland from the Policy Research Institute (Smith, 1987a; Chambers, 1987; Smith, 1987b). Smith (1987a) began by identifying three types of explanation that had been proposed to account for the unemployment gap between Protestants and Catholics. The first type claimed there was, in reality, no unemployment gap if appropriate comparisons were made. Examples of this type are explanations based on the differential geographical spread or social class structure of the Protestant and Catholic populations in Northern Ireland. If these factors explained the unemployment gap, then an analysis which took them into account should show the unemployment gap disappearing.

The second type of explanation Smith identified were those which described the social and economic processes which lead to higher unemployment for Catholics. Examples would include the existence of a dual labour market for Protestants and Catholics, with the latter over-represented in a labour market characterised by less security or stability of employment or differential educational qualifications.

The third and final type of explanation identified by Smith were those which involved evaluations of social facts in moral or political terms: these explanations, Smith suggested, either sought to place blame for the unemployment gap or advocated new policy directions. Included in this category would be those explanations that attempted to explain high unemployment among Catholics as being due to fertility, ie the consequence of Catholics having larger families than Protestants, or alternatively explanations based on the existence of discrimination against Catholics.

Smith's analysis was an attempt to assess the relative merits of these various explanations using CHS datacollected between 1983 and 1985: section seven included some discussion of Smith's examination of the employed population, but the present discussion will concentrate on his examination of unemployment among men. The analysis proceeded in two stages.

The first stage involved an examination of unemployment as mediated by six distinct social variables, with an attempt to standardise unemployment rates for each of these variables: the variables were socioeconomic group, age, type of industry, academic qualifications and geography (three different geographical measures were employed). For the present it is sufficient to say that while most of these variables did influence unemployment levels, when each variable was standardised the unemployment gap between Protestants and Catholics remained significant. In other words, no single variable explained the unemployment gap.

The second stage of Smith's analysis was based on the realistic grounds that whil no single variable might explain the unemployment gap, a combination of some or all of the variables might. In order to assess this possibility Smith carried out a multiple regression analysis which examined the inter-relationships between religion, geography, age, number of dependent children, socioeconomic group and highest academic qualification.

A multiple regression analysis produces a model which quantifies the relative contribution each of these variables makes to the dependent variable, which in this case was the probability that a man would be unemployed. Smith in fact produced two models, each with a different geographical criterion: one model used fourteen travel-to-work areas (the Belfast travel-to-work area was subdivided into three) while the second divided Northern Ireland into four broader areas.

Smith drew a number of conclusions from his analysis:

  • First, those most likely to be unemployed were the lower socioeconomic groups, Catholics, those without qualifications, the young and those with many dependent children.

  • Second, there was a fairly uniform tendency for Catholics to have a higher chance of being unemployed, in comparison with comparable Protestants, throughout Northern Ireland: in other words, there was no significant link between area and religion.

  • Third, those in lower socioeconomic groups were more likely to be unemployed as the number of dependent children rose: this indicated the importance of the 'poverty trap' although, as suggested in section nine, it is a moot point whether the real problem here is low pay.
Smith's overall conclusion was that
... after taking account of the factors included in the model, the difference in the rate of unemployment between Protestants and Catholics is somewhat reduced, compared with the simple rates, but it remains substantial. In fact, for the typical group selected, the rate of unemployment predicted for Catholics is almost double the rate for Protestants in most travel to work areas. ... It is possible to put forward more detailed theories of the social processes that lead to the difference in rates of unemployment, but in the end such theories rest on the assumption that Catholics are somehow channeled into disadvantaged sectors of the labour market. Apart from discrimination or unequal opportunities, no adequate explanation of how they are confined within such sectors has yet emerged
(Smith, 1987, Pp31-9).
Smith's conclusions have been criticised, in particular because of his suggestion that discrimination probably continues to play an important role in explaining the unemployment gap between Protestants and Catholics (Smith, 1988; Cormack and Osborne, 1989; Wilson, 1989; see also articles and letters in Fortnight Nos. 258 and 259, 1989). Three main areas of criticism have been offered in the published literature.

Firstly, it was suggested that Smith had drawn inappropriate inferences from his analysis. Almost any variables applied to a dataset will produce a regression equation which is, in essence, a model of the relationship between the selected variables and the issue under examination (in this case the probability of a man being unemployed). When the selected variables do not provide a complete model of the issue under examination, then there will be a high amount of 'unexplained variance'. When this occurs then either all or some of the selected variables are inappropriate, or some new variable(s) are needed to complete the model. Smith had argued that his selected variables incorporated all hitherto offered explanations of the unemployment gap except discrimination, therefore the 'unexplained variance' was explained by the role of discrimination or unequal opportunity.

Wilson (1989 Pps113-114) argued that it was a statistically unsafe procedure to attribute 'unexplained variance' to a variable not included in the initial analysis. Wilson went on to suggest that Smith had not included other factors which may have contributed to the unemployment gap, including the importance of employment in the security forces and the role of the 'informal' economy (although see Morrissey et al., 1984 Pp44-47, and Howe, 1989). In addition, it was suggested that Smith's measure of the role of education was incomplete in that it considered the level, but not the subject, of qualifications (see discussion in section 4).

A second criticism was offered by Cormack and Osborne (1989, p50) who suggested that Smith had conflated direct and indirect discrimination. Although Eversley (1989) offers some grounds to justify such conflation (see below), Cormack and Osborne argue that maintaining a differentiation between indirect and direct discrimination is important because of the different social policy initiatives that are appropriate for each.

A third criticism of Smith 's conclusions focussed on the geographical measures he used in his analysis. Smith's data were derived from CHS data, the sample for which was collected using regional stratification of Northern Ireland into three areas. Within each of the three regions the probability of households being selected for the sample was equal, but the probability of selection may not have been equal across Northern Ireland as a whole. On these grounds it has been suggested that the assignment of CHS data to geographical areas may not have been appropriate.

Once again no consensus emerged from this debate and it is unlikely that the participants have said their last word: two books (by Cormack and Osborne, and Smith and Chambers) are expected to be published in 1991 and it seems likely that both will pick up some of the issues of the debate.

Eversley (1989) took a somewhat different approach to Smith (1987) but arrived at a broadly similar conclusion. Eversley has provided what is perhaps the most detailed examination of available statistics on various explanations for the unemployment gap: he is particularly critical of those suggestions which seek to place the blame for Catholic unemployment on characteristics of that community (Pp226-7). Eversley suggests that in the period of expanding employment in the 1960s and early 1970s, Catholics did not, by and large, benefit from the new opportunities. A variety of factors came together to create this situation in the large, foreign owned companies which established in Northern Ireland, including informal recruitment procedures, the location of these companies in predominantly Protestant areas and the reluctance of Catholics to move to these areas (p232). Nor, he suggests, should the geographical factor be used to blame the minority since government regional policies on industrial support and housing were "specifically designed to ensure that the population stayed where it was" (p222). Some Catholics did find employment in the new companies, but twenty years later there was relatively little evidence of movement up the occupational ladder and, in the period of decline, they lost ground through the 'last in, first out' rule. Eversley concludes as follows:

So we are left with the conclusion that discrimination is not only a residual explanation, but an important component part of the total labour market situation. If people will not move, or apply for jobs, because they fear discrimination in obtaining work and promotion, and because they are anxious about leaving the protection of their community, then perceived hostile and unfair practices on the part of the majority population become a central part of the total explanation (p235).

In arriving at this conclusion Eversley appears, like Smith (1987). to be conflating direct and indirect discrimination. In this case there would appear to be two grounds for doing this: firstly, on the grounds of parsimony the effect of direct and indirect discrimination on an individual is the same, ie that individual is denied a job. Secondly, an overly rigid criterion of proof of intent for direct discrimination can lead, in the absence of unequivocal proof, to the conclusion that direct discrimination is virtually non-existent and prejudice therefore not a problem. This in turn can lead policy away from attempts to deal with such prejudice as does exist towards purely structural solutions. It is perhaps for this reason that Eversley's policy recommendations include not only increased efforts to create additional employment: "more importantly, the whole area of discrimination against Catholics has to be tackled with greater vigour" (p236). Clearly the major thrust of such measures will focus on structural elements (for example, recruitment and promotion policies) but included within this broader remit would be attempts to counter those arguments and perceptions that have been used to excuse lack of activity in the past.

The most recent attitudinal evidence suggests that there continues to be a widespread belief among both communities in Northern Ireland that prejudice and discrimination exist. In an analysis of Northern Ireland data in the Seventh British Social Attitudes report, Curtice and Gallagher (1990) found that 63% of Protestants and 84% of Catholics believed there was some prejudice against Catholics in Northern Ireland, while 69% of Protestants and 62% of Catholics believed there was some prejudice against Protestants.

About half of all respondents say that job applicants have the same chance, nearly one third say that Protestants are more likely to get a job, and only one in ten believe Catholics to have an advantage. Perception of discrimination is particularly strong among Catholics, with no less than 59% of them believing that Protestants have a relative advantage ... When Protestants and Catholics were asked why the other group had an advantage, hardly anyone believed that this was because they were better qualified. Over three-quarters say it is because of employers' prejudices in favour of one group or another. (Curtice and Gallagher, 1990 p209).
We are left then with something of a conundrum. On the one hand there appears to be a popular belief that discrimination in employment continues to be a widespread feature of life in Northern Ireland. On the other hand the research literature contains the full gamut of views, ranging from those who argue that the supposed level of discrimination in the past was exaggerated, through those who feel that the unemployment differential can be explained by factors other than discrimination, those who argue that indirect discrimination or disadvantage are more significant than direct discrimination, and finally those who argue that direct discrimination continues to play a role. Given this plurality of views it is unfortunate that there does not appear to be any published study which attempts to measure the extent of direct discrimination in Northern Ireland, even though such studies have been carried out in other places (see for example, Smith, 1981).

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