No more discrimination any more?
‘Fair employment in Northern Ireland,
a generation on’ edited by Bob Osborne and Ian Shuttleworth, The Blackstaff
Press, Belfast, 2004.
27th November 2004
‘This book establishes authoritatively that problems of ethnic/religious discrimination in Northern Ireland have been tackled with considerable success…’ (Garret Fitzgerald in ‘Fair employment in Northern Ireland, a generation on’ – FENI, p.vii) So says the introduction to a major review of employment patterns in the North partly published by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and therefore representing a semi-official view of the current state of religious discrimination in employment. What evidence does this book present; is Fitzgerald’s conclusion warranted and what significance have the arguments and evidence for socialist policy on the North?
The first chapter of the book presents a history of attempts to tackle discrimination, focussing mainly on official, state sponsored action. It notes that apart from the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement (NICRA) there was no attempt to measure discrimination until analysis of the 1971 census was carried out; and not until 1978 were the details of Catholic disadvantage set out in any detail, revealing that Catholics had an unemployment rate two and a half times that of Protestants. Subsequent research revealed the stubborn character of this difference even while the traditional manufacturing base of the economy collapsed, leading to substantial changes in employment patterns.
The editors argue that the salience of this differential has reduced as the rate of unemployment has fallen over the 1990s. In a television ‘debate’ on the findings of the book, between Bob Osborne and Ulster Unionist politician Dermot Nesbitt, it was agreed that it was ‘complicated’; that ‘unemployment was not a predictor of poverty,’ and that the differential was now the ‘wrong question’ and perhaps was the wrong question twenty five years ago.
Ironic then that the editors note the politicised character of much of the academic debate on discrimination and how it reflects the background political climate. They appear however to be unaware that their own research and findings might also be so influenced and unaware that their interpretation of their empirical findings sits very comfortably within the existing establishment consensus that the problems of the past have effectively been overcome and that pure perception is now as important as reality.
What the careful reader will glean from the short history of State responses to sectarian discrimination is how slow it was, and how it was determined not by dispassionate academic research but by political struggle. The first law against discrimination only reached the statute book in 1976 and was not a result of NICRA’s documentation of discrimination but of a virtual insurrection by the Catholic minority population. The potted history of fair employment initiatives would leave the reader ignorant of the scandalous inactivity of the Fair Employment Agency in the 1970s and 80s which led to a virtual revolt of its staff against its passivity and complete deference to the British government.
This is not just of historical interest. If it can be seen that Catholic advancement was a product of struggle and that official bodies were subject to state subordination there can be no confidence that any advances will be maintained without the continuance of struggle Naturally such considerations play no part in the analysis of dispassionate academics.
This first chapter sets out the contents of the book and the main findings contained within it. The key finding is ‘…that religious background does not independently influence the chances of any individual achieving a higher social status than their parents.’
‘Once the effect of occupational structure is taken into account, Catholic and non-Catholic males show the same pattern of occupational mobility between generations. The same result had been obtained in 1973/74, but the difference for 1996/97 is that the current occupational structures of the Catholic and non-Catholic men do not differ significantly. These results hold when the analysis is extended to include men and women.’ (FENI, p. 19)
The author maintains that this shows ‘that fair employment legislation has had a demonstrable effect, equalising Catholic and non-Catholic mobility chances.’ He argues that ‘the main reason for this convergence in the occupational structures of the two religious groups can be attributed in large part to the educational reforms of the postwar era…This is perhaps one of the most significant conclusions for this book as a whole and conclusively demonstrates that the circumstances of Catholics have been transformed in the past generation.’ (FENI, p. 19 - 20)
The editors claim that ‘the affirmative action powers of the 1989 (Fair Employment) Act have been a vital tool in securing change…’ (FENI, p. 21) This change has meant that ‘ In many areas Catholics as a group have caught up with or surpassed Protestants, and there is no longer consistent Catholic relative disadvantage to the same extent as in the 1970s and 1980s….The new situation poses…the requirement to engage more with the Protestant/unionist community.’ (FENI, p. 23)
What this last remark implies, even after ‘success’ is achieved, is the continuation of sectarian competition. This is missed by the authors but is crucial to any understanding of what striving for equality means in a society structured by sectarianism.
The findings of Catholic improvement in employment circumstances comes from analysis of the monitored workforce, i.e. the workforce monitored by the Fair Employment Commission, now succeeded in responsibility by the Equality Commission.
The monitored workforce excludes part time workers, self-employed, those in establishments consisting of less than 11 workers, those on government training schemes and school teachers. The latter is important because anti-discrimination laws do not apply to this sector of employment. This allows the Catholic Church to continue to insist on maintenance of the Catholic ‘ethos’ of their schools and discrimination against non-Catholics. Thus nationalist and republican complaints against discrimination never touch upon this area of employment despite its size (over 48,000 employed in all primary and secondary education in 2001) and its importance to sustaining sectarianism generally.
The monitored workforce is thus not the entire workforce, which was recorded as over 637,500 in the 2001 census, while the monitored workforce was only just over 401,000, less than two thirds of the total. The exclusion of part time workers, over 200,000 in 2001, is problematic, especially in relation to male employment on which Catholics are relatively more dependent. In 1999 9.2% of Catholic male employment was part time while the comparable figure for Protestants was 5.4%, although this ratio is very volatile. (A Profile of Protestants and Roman Catholics in the Northern Ireland Labour Force, Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency, March 2001, NISRA)
For comparative purposes the figures used in the book to determine movement in the composition of the monitored workforce between 1990 and 2001 exclude firms employing between 11 and 25 workers, which totalled over 24,000 or nearly 6.5% of the monitored workforce in 2001. The coverage on which the books findings are based is thus further reduced.
Before looking at what the analysis of the monitored workforce reveals it is important to provide a little more context, which is not developed at this point in the book. The workforce itself is a subset of those who are called economically active, i.e. those not only in work but those actively seeking work. The growth of mass unemployment in Britain under Thatcher led to many workers dropping out of the labour market because they had given up hope of ever getting a job. They stopped being ‘economically active’ and many joined the ranks of those on disability benefit. (New Labour now wants to put the squeeze on their entitlements to ensure that they are active in the labour market i.e. putting pressure on those in work in order to drive down wages.)
So how do the two religious groups fare with regard to this measure of economic activity? In 1990 the activity rate of Protestants of both sexes was 76.5% while that of Catholics was 67.8%, a difference of 8.7 percentage points. By 1999 the figures were 74.9% and 67.8% respectively, a difference of 7.1 percentage points, an improvement over the 1990 figure of 1.6 percentage points. In other words Protestants were more likely to be active in the labour market than Catholics, and to this extent more likely to find a job. And while the relative position of Catholics had improved, though not dramatically, this was not through greater participation by them but through a reduction in Protestant participation rates.
At this rate of convergence their figures would coincide after a further 40 years. This however is a rather crude and misleading projection since it says nothing about the dynamics behind the figures, which themselves are so irregular that in 1996 the gap between the two groups had actually increased to 10.6 percentage points. Any improvement in Catholic unemployment rates must therefore be set against a background of failure to significantly increase the relative numbers joining the labour market and seeking employment in the first place.
Nature of Employment
The results of the surveys of the monitored workforce show that the Catholic percentage of the workforce increased from 34.9% in 1990 to 39.5% in 2001, an increase of 4.6 percentage points, although the rate of increase appeared to slow in the latter half of the period, so projections of continuing improvement are hazardous. This however does not prevent authors at several points in the book making rather optimistic statements about future trends, in general without any sustained reasoning to support them.
To make sense of these figures we have to, as we have said, compare them to the respective shares of each religious group of the economically active population. In 1990 this was 40% Catholic and 59.9% Protestant. This meant that while 40% of the total active labour force was composed of Catholics they made up only 34.9% of the (monitored) employed labour force, a shortfall of 5.1 percentage points. This gap was significantly larger for Catholic males than it was for Catholic females, 8.4 percentage points as against 0.9, but it must be recalled that part time employment which is more important to women is excluded from this calculation. (FENI, p. 26)
By 2001 the Catholic proportion of the economically active population had increased to 42.7% while employment had increased to 39.5%, a gap of 3.2% and a narrowing by 1.9 percentage points during the period. Once again the gap was larger for men – 5.3%, than it was for women – 0.8%.
A major finding of the book is how this increased relative participation of Catholics in employment is reflected in broad classification of the jobs that they do, and it must be emphasised (as the book does not) that the classifications are broad. The author states that;
‘It was found that Protestants were overrepresented in the higher Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) groups, namely professional and managerial, while Catholics, particularly males, had a larger presence in the lower SOC groups – generally those with lower status and remuneration, such as unskilled and ancillary workers.’ (FENI p. 27)
In 1990 the monitoring returns show that in only one of the nine classifications were Catholics overrepresented in comparison with their overall economic participation rate. This was SOC 3, which includes nursing, and what used to be called professions allied to medicine. By 2001 Catholic representation had increased in all groups but most significantly in Professional occupations (+10.5 percentage points), Managers and Administrators (+8.6) and clerical & Secretarial occupations (+7.0). They were now overrepresented in the first of these as well as in SOC3. Their increase was lowest in craft and skilled occupations (+1.1), plant and machine operatives (+1.6) and other occupations (+2.4).
The book then looks at the background to these trends by breaking them down into public and private sector totals. In the public sector the Catholic share of the workforce increased from 35.3% in 1990 to 39.9% in 2001. By the latter date Catholics were overrepresented, in comparison to the percentage economically active, in five of the groups, with again the greatest increase being in the higher occupational groups. Only in one group, craft and skilled occupations, did their share decline slightly.
Protestants made up 92.6% of those engaged in ‘security’ occupations in 1990 and 91.3% in 2001. This meant that 1 in 4 of Protestants in the public sector was employed this way in 1990, rising to 1 in 3 in 2001. The Catholic share of 1 in 20 remained unchanged during this time. (FENI, p. 37) Catholics remained underrepresented in the higher grades of the civil service and in a number of district councils.
In the private sector Catholic participation
increased from 34.6% of the monitored workforce in 1990 to 39.33% in 2001.
In terms of SOC therefore Catholic representation rose by 4.7 percentage
points overall but by 12.1% in SOC 3 (Associate Professional and technical
occupations), 8.9% in SOC 4 (clerical and secretarial) and 8.5% in SOC
1 & 2 (Managers & administrators and Professional occupations).
However, in contrast to the public sector, in no SOC groups were Catholics
equal to their share of the economically active workforce. Another
difference between the two sectors was that while employment in the monitored
public sector fell it rose in the private sector so that in the latter
the absolute numbers of both religious groups employed increased.
The third chapter records what the editors
consider a key finding of the research. Using path models to analyse the
determinants of mobility, they claim to demonstrate the lack of any independent
effect of religion on a person’s success or otherwise in the labour market,
in contrast to some earlier research:
‘The path model for the 1973/74 data demonstrated that the most important determinant of a person’s present occupational status was their level of educational qualification, followed by the level at which they entered the labour market (the status of their first job). Social background, as indexed by the status of their father’s job, also had a significant, though smaller direct effect…Once account had been taken in the model of all these other variables, religion continued to have a statistically significant, though weak, direct effect upon occupational status, with Protestants being somewhat more likely to have a higher status occupation….The interpretation of the meaning of the persistence of the religion coefficient was that it could be taken as indirect evidence of religious discrimination operating against Catholics.’ (FENI, p. 52)
The author addresses what this means for
the effect of one’s religion on expected occupational status:
‘That is not to say that the broad religious community to which a person is attributed now has no significance in Northern Ireland. The less advantaged position of Catholics in Northern Ireland cannot be explained away simply by attributing it to other associated demographic or social factors… What the lack of significance for religion does demonstrate is that the effect of religion upon people’s mobility chances is played out through the association of religion with other factors that affect mobility.’ (FENI p56)
It is difficult to say with confidence just exactly what the research of this chapter is supposed to demonstrate, since the model used ‘explains’ only 42% of the variance of occupational status. It thus records the improved relative position of Catholics set out in the book’s second chapter but is less than clear on the explanation for the movement. This is no doubt partly as a result of the mathematical model accounting for less than half of what is to be explained. Thus speculation takes over from factor coefficients in explaining the significance of fair employment legislation, and its importance shifts from ‘minor’ to vague – ‘it is probable that fair employment legislation has had some demonstrable effect.’ (FENI p. 64)
Religion is associated with other factors that affect mobility but the determining role of class (proxied by variables such as father’s occupation, first job, periods of unemployment, education etc.) means its precise significance isn’t measured, begging the question – what is the exact use of a mathematical model which shows that religion has no ‘independent influence’? Like so many mathematical models of social phenomena it is the theory that gives meaning to the figures but in this case hypothesised explanations also beg questions. Why is changing occupational structure leading, inter alia, to a decline in skilled manual employment, responsible for the improved position of Catholics when, as we have seen from the previous chapter, this was the occupational group in which Catholics recorded the smallest improvement? And what confidence do we have in a model which records that the first job is so important and religion much less so when we are informed that 38% of surveyed respondents said friends and relatives were the main way they got their first job? What this gives rise to is the realisation that there is a real difference between accounting for social phenomena, especially less than half of it, and actually explaining them.
On this score the book does present research which provides what may be seen as a reasonable explanation for improvement of the Catholic position. In chapter three education was found to strongly influence occupational status and in the fourth chapter the educational performance of the two religious groups is examined. It is recognised however that the direction of causation is not simply one way and that not only does education affect status, but unemployment and dependency on state benefits ‘have been shown to depress or reduce educational performance’ and that ‘This factor alone would lead to a prediction of Catholic underachievement relative to Protestants.’ (FENI p. 71)
In general terms the differences in educational attainment are not great. In terms of the transfer test 37.8% of those in Catholic primary schools attain a grade A compared to 39.9% in the other, ‘Protestant,’ schools; and 28.8% attain grade D in Catholic schools compared to 28% in the other schools. At this level of education the greatest difference appears to be in ‘Protestant’ schools with a high level of pupils in receipt of free school meals where the figure for achievement of an A grade is 16.3% against a comparable Catholic school figure of 26.4%. This points to the overarching fact that ‘The eleven plus process is…highly selective in social class terms.’ (FENI p. 73)
In terms of qualifications of school leavers Catholic schools do marginally better at the higher levels of qualification but worse at the lower end, thus having a more unequal profile of educational attainment, but the book concludes that ‘there are still no significant differences in the contemporary qualifications of leavers from the two systems.’ (FENI p. 75) The real inequality is determined by the split, upheld by both systems, between grammar and secondary schools. Pupils from Catholic grammar schools are more likely to leave with A levels than pupils from ‘Protestant’ grammar schools and this is also true of Catholic and ‘Protestant’ secondary schools but pupils from Catholic secondary schools are also more likely to leave with no GCSEs or no formal qualifications at all than their Protestant counterparts.
Thus while the Catholic position has improved over the last generation the relatively disadvantaged position of working class Catholic boys stands out – particularly in their destination upon leaving school. Only 18.4% go on to Further Education institutions compared to 28.5% of pupils from the other secondary schools while 48.9% go into training, including the government sponsored Jobskills programme, compared to 36.2% of pupils in the other secondary schools. Such inequality is a fitting commentary on the ‘Catholic ethos’ by which the Catholic Church defends its control of young people’s education.
No marked difference in participation in higher education is noted except, and perhaps as a result of, the much remarked phenomena of middle class Protestants taking the opportunity to go to university in Britain, often not to return. This means ‘that the religious composition of graduates in Northern Ireland shows a higher representation of Catholics than amongst entrants overall.’ And that ‘There is no doubt that rising Catholic participation in higher education, together with the migration flows of students, has fed into the increasing representation of Catholics in professional, managerial and white collar jobs in general.’(FENI p. 81) From this it should not be taken that there is thus a smooth route from educational to labour market success. For each level of educational attainment Catholic unemployment rates are higher and the absolute gap is largest for those Catholics with the lowest educational attainment. (FENI p. 85)
The next couple of chapters could be seen as an intellectual case for the contention of editor, and Equality Commission member, Bob Osborne that comparative unemployment rates are no longer, if they ever were, the question. In chapter 5 Shuttleworth and Green argue that the distinction between work and unemployment has broken down, partly because the definition of unemployment has been changed so often and partly because many jobless have withdrawn from the labour market entirely – into retirement or on to other benefits, making it more difficult to ‘assess the meaning of features such as the unemployment differential than was the case in the past.’ (FENI p. 93)
The authors quote a 1999 study which claimed that ‘if the hidden component of joblessness is accounted for, total male unemployment in Northern Ireland would be more than one-third higher than official figures suggest.’ (FENI p. 111) They also note the relative constancy of the unemployment differential between Catholics and Protestants – ‘averaging 2.2 for males and 1.6 for females over the period 1990 to 1999 – despite changes in the level of unemployment.’ They quote another study which ;concludes that there is evidence of a “religion penalty”, with a great deal of the overrepresentation of Catholic males amongst the jobless being attributable to who they were, after controlling for what they were. Evidence was also found for a “religion penalty” in explaining the overrepresentation of Catholic females amongst the jobless, although the size of the penalty was smaller in the case of females than of males.’’ (FENI p. 112-113)
In general however the unemployment differential is not investigated and its significance downplayed. Difficulty in providing a consistent measurement of unemployment becomes a means of sidelining it as an issue, although the heightened importance of differential activity rates is not pursued very far either. Instead Bob Osborne discounts its significance even while discussing a book on inequality that focuses on labour market outcomes.
What all researchers in this field agree on is the importance of labour market opportunities and outcomes, but whether one is active in the market, or is unsuccessful in it, is apparently ‘not the question’! The fact that the 2001 census revealed that 73% of Catholics aged 16 to 74 were economically active compared to 79% of Protestants and that 44% were employed against 50% of Protestants would, one might have thought, be the starting point of analysis, not issues to be viewed at the margin. (FENI, p. 118)
The next two chapters present evidence that the 1989 Fair Employment legislation as operated by the Fair Employment Commission (FEC) deserves credit for advances in fair employment. Chapter 7 looks at the impact of affirmative action agreements with firms, which are designed to increase the representation of underrepresented groups in poorly integrated workplaces. The authors argue that firms signed up to such agreements have more integrated workforces and are associated with growth of underrepresented groups.
They do not however consider the catchment areas of firms, so are rather blind as to just how representative workforces are; do not look at individual workplaces but only firms as a whole, thus generating a similar problem; do not look at internal segregation, and do not look at evidence of a ‘chill’ factor for different groups generated by ‘historical associations’, and fear of ‘real or expected discrimination.’ (FENI p. 133)
The authors calculate the total number
of firms employing less than 25% of one religious group:
‘Amongst monitored firms without agreements, the total…fell from 561 in 1990 to 484 in 2000, a fall of 8 per cent, from 57 per cent to 49 per cent of the total. The firms reaching agreements with the FEC…started with higher segregation, but saw it fall further over the decade. In 1990, 203 of these firms, 73 per cent of the total, employed less than 25 per cent of one community. By 2000, this had fallen to 177 firms, 63 per cent of the total; a 10 per cent drop. This is impressive when we consider that the agreement firms were also on average much larger employers, so changes in community proportions involve larger numbers of jobs.’ (FENI p. 134-135)
The authors acknowledge that the pace of change has been slow - 2 to 4 per cent over the decade, but explain it in three ways. Firstly they say that the hardest cases were selected first, i.e. those firms where segregation was greatest and change slowest. It was thus a ‘victim of its own success’ because it was successful in identifying the hardest cases. Secondly it picked the biggest firms so that change was harder to achieve and it picked the slowest growing sectors where there was less opportunity to make changes because of lower staff turnover.
Only the last argument has any merit but even it is no explanation for the slow pace of change. The second argument is false unless the authors can show, which they make no attempt to do, that staff turnover is lower in large firms. The first argument forgets that the purpose of FEC agreements is not to pick the hard cases but actually to have some success with them.
Even the argument that firms with growing
employment make it easier to achieve shifts in employment balance is undermined
by the experience of firms with FEC agreements. In the firms with voluntary
agreements Catholic representation grew more than in those firms with formal
Article 13 agreements even though the latter witnessed growing employment
and the former shrinking employment. That change was greater in firms with
voluntary agreements than in those with the more formal Article 13 agreements
raises obvious questions about the effectiveness of the FEC approach. Once
again such questions receive the same response – that change is harder
with the harder cases where Article 13 agreements are employed – though
it could be argued that this is presumably why the FEC has more formal
Article 13 agreements in the first place. The authors’ speculation that
perhaps the more informal approach is more effective just adds a note of
bemusement to the whole discussion. What the authors don’t face up to is
perhaps the slower rate of change in the ‘hard cases’ shows employers’
ability to resist the efforts of the FEC; or perhaps it’s the weakness
of the latter?
The most glaring ideological bias in the book is evident in chapter 9 which looks at a public opinion survey examining attitudes towards equality in the North. The questions asked are often vague and the commentary offered on the answers tendentious or plain wrong. So for example on page 178 it is reported that there is an ‘apparent consensus amongst Protestants and Catholics that Protestants are in general less well treated.’ Except on page 171 it is recorded that 54% of Catholics think Protestants are better treated and 42% think it depends. How this is consensual with 46% of Protestants thinking Catholics are treated better (and 37% thinking it depends) is anyone’s guess. The much acclaimed support among both religious groups for equality legislation may more reasonably be put down to differences in views on what the proper task of such legislation is rather than agreement. The repeated claim that attitudinal changes, even when correctly described, have been due to legislative change is simply asserted with no supporting argument.
On page 181 the author claims that ‘in the post-Agreement period Catholics perceive themselves to be more favourably treated than Protestants.’ In fact the table on page 171 records that in 2000 only 3% of Catholics thought Catholics were usually treated better. We perhaps should not be surprised that the author’s views about what the survey shows are sometimes not soundly based since she claims that ‘social attitudes are not reflective of objective facts’ (FENI p. 183) With such a view it is possible to ascribe any explanation whatever to the survey results. The purpose of such nonsense is to promote an agenda which says that the problem of Catholic discrimination has been dealt with and the problem now is to respond to Protestant claims.
At this point it should be possible to come to a summary judgement of the claims that ‘this book establishes authoritatively that problems of ethnic/religious discrimination in Northern Ireland have been tackled with considerable success…’ (Garret Fitzgerald) and that ‘this book … conclusively demonstrates that the circumstances of Catholics have been transformed in the past generation.’ (FENI p. 19-20) But there remain a number of problems.
First the book doesn’t actually set out to measure discrimination but takes the unsubstantiated approach of measuring outcomes and other, possibly more easily measured factors, to leave any residual difference as possible evidence of existence of discrimination. Except that it doesn’t even do this, and nowhere demonstrates that it has taken the existence of discrimination seriously. That it doesn’t find any evidence of it is hardly surprising since it hasn’t looked for it.
This is not to say that finding such direct evidence is easy, but then one should be a little more circumspect in presenting positive conclusions about the effectiveness of anti-discrimination legislation. One means of directly measuring racial discrimination in Britain has been to send equally qualified applicants for jobs and see whether the black candidate fares as well as the white. In a previous study this approach was rejected in Northern Ireland because of its smallness and the dangers it was claimed would be involved in such an approach. (Inequality in Northern Ireland, Smith and Chambers, Oxford, 1991) Both these factors could easily be seen as not only making finding discrimination harder but practising it in the first place easier.
The second problem is that while grand claims have been made that the circumstances of Catholics ‘have been transformed’ not all these circumstances have been investigated. We are not just talking about differential activity and unemployment rates or duration of unemployment, which do not receive sufficient attention, but other measures of economic and social circumstance. We have noted that the information presented in the book does not consider questions of income and that the categories of comparison are very broad but there are other very easily gathered measurements of status that are not included in the book.
The Family Expenditure Survey (FES) indicates that the ‘Catholic share of employment income is proportionately less, by about 20 per cent, than the Catholic share of the working-age population.’ (Community Differentials and New TSN Summary Report, Tony Dignan, Office of the First and Deputy First Minister, 2003, OFDFM p. 25)
In 2002-03 a survey of those in receipt of State benefits recorded that 53% of those on Income support and 57% on Family tax credit were Catholics. Only in respect of receipt of retirement pension were Protestants significantly overrepresented – 69% of recipients were Protestant. (Bare Necessities, Poverty and Social Exclusion in Northern Ireland, Democratic Dialogue, Belfast 2003) Results of the FES between 1996/97 and 1998/99 showed that average gross household income in Catholic households was 12% lower than the average Protestant household. Measured in terms of gross income per capita the disparity was higher at 25% and even when net income was measured the difference was 15%.
Social security benefits accounted for an average of 27% of gross income in Catholic households compared to 19% in Protestant households. Data from 1998/99 show that one in three children in Catholic maintained schools came from families in receipt of relevant benefits, 1.8 times that of children attending other managed schools and twice that of pupils in other managed post-primary schools. Thirty four per cent of Catholic pupils in primary schools were in receipt of free school meals compared to 18% of Protestant children and 32% of Catholic children in post primary schools were in receipt of these meals compared to 19% of Protestant children. Catholics are at a greater risk of experiencing multiple deprivation, 25% are so deprived as opposed to 16% of Protestants. The relative balance in the numbers of each religious group living in low income households reflects the relatively higher number of Protestants who are older and often living alone.
Catholic disadvantage is more spatially concentrated so that two-thirds of Catholics in the lowest income households were located in areas classified as ‘deprived’ or ‘most deprived’ whereas only one in three Protestants in the lower income categories were located in such areas. (OFDFM, p. 23-26) Of course not all those living in ‘deprived’ areas are themselves deprived and not all poor people live in deprived areas.
Clearly there is much more to the economic and social circumstances of the Catholic, and Protestant, population than has been examined in the book but their derivation from labour market outcomes and effect on the respective populations is not discussed.
So what in the end are we to make of the findings in the book? The first is the most obvious, but will be the least discussed, and the reason for this is eminently political. The determinant of the economic and social status of both Catholics and Protestants is class. It will not be discussed because everyone knows that there is nothing that any of the political forces in the North of Ireland are going to do about it. The relationship of relative income and other resources to position in the hierarchy of ownership and/or control of the forces of production is so intimate that the former is often seen as a measure of the latter. No significant political force seeks to make this absolutely fundamental division of society equally fundamental to its political programme.
This does not make religious differences irrelevant, especially when we consider that such differences have been one very important means of preventing the emergence of a political force putting class at the centre of its political project. If the differences are diminishing then this should be welcomed as a step, however indirectly related to political consciousness, to the future unity of Irish workers. The same general approach must apply, with many, many important caveats, to the gender differences which the book shows up.
It is clear from the research presented in the book that the relative position of Catholics has improved over the 1990s, a contrast with the previous decade. The improvement is significant, but the greater convergence of Catholic and Protestant rates of employment in the higher occupation groups; the continued high levels of economic inactivity; the continuing unemployment differential and continued inequality in Catholic education show that the relative position of Catholic workers has improved much less than that of the best paid sections of the Catholic working class and Catholic middle class. The latter has improved its relative position not so much because of legislation but because its Protestant competitors have left the country. The former have improved their economic position more by the general fall in unemployment than by the zealotry of the fair employment bureaucracy.
When we look at the generally improved economic environment we also have to factor in the growth of debt in supporting economic activity and living standards and the impact of public sector employment. Looking to the future the British government has signalled that the latter is going to be squeezed along with the income associated with it and the former cannot expand indefinitely.
Behind explanations based on educational improvement and legislative change lies the growth of the Catholic population which has made the extreme discrimination of the past unenforceable. The Catholic proportion of the population has increased to a level that unionists at the founding of the State considered too large to guarantee secure control of the State for themselves. Of course the sectarian Catholic claim, that they are heading to a situation of out-breeding Protestants, is false, as the last census figures revealed.
The Catholic revolt against their second class status in the northern State is ultimately responsible for their improved position and without it they would not have made the gains, however inequitable, that they have. Reversal of the Catholic revolt through the peace process and acceptance of the legitimacy of the State does not mean the revolt in reverse, i.e. a simple return to the old Stormont days, even were the new Stormont to be brought back.
Instead the irreformability of the sectarian State will, as it already is, be evidenced by instability. In this situation steps towards religious equality of misery or disadvantage does not lessen sectarianism, it inflames it. This may seem not to be so at present only because of the exhaustion of forces following thirty years of civil strife; but exhaustion is a process from which one recovers.
Hopes for equality of sectarian privilege are illusory. There cannot be equality of sectarianism in a state whose only reason for existence are the claims of one sectarian group.
Even this very academic and semi-official book evidences this in its own way by its forecast that Protestant concerns now have to be addressed even while its figures show that Catholic disadvantage is very far from being overcome. The book records that in 1971 Church of Ireland members suffered unemployment rates similar to that of Catholics but it is impossible to imagine a North where this had as much political salience as the Catholic/Protestant differential. No one cares about the former but it is impossible to imagine no one caring about the latter. In other words it is impossible to imagine a non-sectarian North.
This fact means that sectarian competition for resources will always be important until a political project is defined in a way that seeks to overcome and destroy sectarianism not measure it out in equal quantities. The latter is the approach of the authors of this book and it cannot work. Only in the heads of academics can fair employment legislation and bureaucracy be the determinant of sectarian rivalry. The absence of political struggle from their analysis is the clearest demonstration of their separation from the real world, despite all their figures attempting to measure it.
Nevertheless can it not be argued that the improved position of Catholics, no matter how minor, gives them a greater stake in the State and undermines any opposition they might have to it? This undoubtedly contains more than a grain of truth. The improved position of some Catholics especially the better off ones can be seen as the constituency of new Sinn Fein as it has dropped opposition to the State in favour of sectarian equality within it. Their position can be held up as evidence of republicans’ success no matter what actual role their political activity played in bringing it about.
But this only means that the improved relative position of Catholics is riven with the same contradictions as the peace process itself. Thus the fundamental position of the Catholic working class hasn’t changed. As we have said, factors that have allowed it to make very modest gains in its living standards are under attack and the British hope that it will be the peace process parties who will preside over, and successfully sell, these attacks to their constituencies.
The most stupid illusion of those seeking ‘normality’ is that the process of change will one day stop at the point of some political deal that the British have succeeded in throwing together. Four times the Executive has collapsed and four times such illusions have been broken. Today the illusion is exposed by repeated claims that ever so little separates the parties – but still there is no deal.
The importance of all this for the relative economic and social position of the two religious groups is that in so far as it has been a result of political struggle, and will continue to be so, it will be dependent on the shift to the right of the whole peace process. When we say that the improved position of Catholics may not automatically be reversed we are not at all saying that it will not come under attack from unionists who, if they succeed in establishing a local regime more to their liking, will not fail to attempt to use it to further their sectarian ambitions.
For socialists increased equality between two sectarian groups at the price of increased inequality within them is hardly progress. Socialists support the end of religious discrimination and the ending of differences structured by religion. This can only help to provide a more secure foundation for attempts to politically overcome sectarianism. Increased inequality within the Catholic population is a useful argument against the State’s whole fair employment project which, even if taken at face value, is concerned only with equality of disadvantage.
Such inequality is also an argument against sectarians in the Protestant population who wish to blame the continued poverty and disadvantage of Protestant workers on the improved position of (some) Catholics. This is exactly what the British State does when it declares that Protestant working class areas have not received the same benefits as Catholic working class areas. They inevitably do this when they provide patronage to loyalist paramilitaries for the benefit of ‘their’ community.
The amelioration of sectarian differentials, whatever about its extent, has proceeded during a decade which has surprised supporters of the peace process for its raw displays of bigotry, of which Drumcree and Holy Cross have been the most memorable. This only shows that the Northern State really is irreformable.
It shows that, while class divisions are primary, socialists cannot ignore the continued existence of religious differences and that specific demands to counter them cannot be buried by abstract calls for unity that wish to ignore them. Nor can the need to eliminate sectarian disadvantage be held up as the primary task before projects for workers unity can be attempted. Only by fighting for the unity of all Ireland’s workers as equals can sectarianism be destroyed.