Northern Ireland: Is there still a big divide between Protestant and Catholic workers?

Northern Ireland is a country on the up.

Dogged by sectarian violence for more than a quarter of  a century, the Troubles are now almost a thing of the past, and a new confidence in the economy is seeing jobs created and new investors coming to the region.

And it is in the workplace, according to Bob Osborne, a professor at the University of Ulster and joint author of Fair Employment in Northern Ireland: a generation on, that improvements in relations between the Protestant and Catholic communities are at their most visible.

“At a time when public housing is virtually completely segregated, there has been a considerable increase in the numbers of people who work in integrated workplaces,” he concludes.

Driving this development is the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland ) Order – legislation from 1998, which forces employers to monitor the community background of their workforce, and to consider reasonable positive action if either Protestants or Catholics are unfairly represented.

This, says Jacqueline McKee, head of employment development at the Equality Commission Northern Ireland – the body created to oversee the implementation of the Act – may mean employers placing job adverts in locations where members of a certain community are likely to see them, establishing contacts with communities and including statements that particularly invite members of a certain community.

“There has been huge change for the better over the past decade, but Northern Ireland’s workplace is a complex picture and pockets of under-representation still exist,” she says.

This point was recently highlighted by Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) representative Gregory Campbell, who last week criticised the Equality Commission for failing to deal with Protestant under-representation in the public sector.

“In virtually every major area where there is Catholic under-representation the situation is improving, while in the public sector, where most people are employed, Protestant under-representation is not,” he said.

But this view, says Sinn Fein MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Michelle Gildernew, is selective.

“The DUP only chooses to focus on small specific areas in the public sector such as health,” she says. “We can just as easily point to low numbers of Catholics in senior public sector positions or the Civil Service.”

McKee says she is aware of these discrepancies and that the commission is monitoring areas where under-representation for both sides still exists. But, she says, the picture is complicated by shifting demographics, which are vital to understanding the employment scene in Northern Ireland.

Higher birth rates among Catholics mean there is a higher proportion of Catholics under the age of 35 ready to move into jobs in call centres, technology and tourism – mainstays of the country’s new economy. The readiness of Protestants to study for degrees on the British mainland who end up not returning to Northern Ireland also means there are more young Catholics with degrees.

But despite the complexity of the issue, there are areas where everyone agrees progress has been made.

Six years after the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, which sought to readdress an imbalance in a sector where virtually all employees were Protestant, the proportion of Catholic officers in the Police Service is now more than 21%.

According to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, thanks to a policy of recruiting 50% Catholic and 50% non-Catholic, the organisation is on target to have 30% of officers from the Catholic community by 2010.

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