Tom King, the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, has published a white paper aimed at ending religious discrimination in the province's job market. Peter Stanford in Belfast examines the intractable nature of the problem, and asks if Mr King (right) can hope for success.
THERE is something reassuringly constant about life in the rural areas of the north of Ireland. Superficially at least. Sunday masses are packed to overcrowding by families in their "Sunday best" who sing unashamedly and smile unreservedly at strangers. Despite the mistrust that the "troubles" have built over the years — and the random sectarian outrages that have affected even the smallest village — outside the cities in this overlylarge equivalent of an English county that we call Northern Ireland, families and communities co-exist on a dayto-day basis. There is none of the intangible evil and fear on the streets that is found in the ghetto heartlands of Belfast and Derry.
The initial qualification, superficial, is an important one. The housing ghettos may not exist to any large extent outside the cities, although the forthcoming 300th anniversary of the Glorious Revolution has prompted a renewed frenzy for painting kerbstones red, white and blue — an affront on the part of one half of the residents to their neighbours on estates without any particular sectarian bias. Rather like the graffit endemic in English cities.
But another sort of ghetto undermines the air of normalcy. Simon is 17 from Co Antrim, and works at the local factory which panders to the upper end of the consumer durable market. He's one of less than ten Catholics in a workforce of around 150. He doesn't complain. In fact he regards himself as fortunate in having found a job when youth unemployment in Northern Ireland is higher than that of mainland Britain. But this bright and articulate boy has virtually no promotion prospects, and he knows it. Hardly an inspiring introduction to a working life.
His father and mother worry that their son spends his working week in such an indirectly discriminatory and unbending environment. Yet the only alternative that they can offer is to take him into their family business, mini cabs and few retail outlets, started because they too found progress upwards blocked, and had to prove their business acumen elsewhere.
They did try to spare their children the same fate. They avoided Gaelic sounding names — like their own — and went for resolutely English middle class alternatives. But they wanted a Catholic education for their offspring. And so they sent them to the local Catholic school. And hence Simon's fate was sealed. For potential employers will never ask a young man or woman if they're Catholic or not. Those days have gone. All they have to do is look at the school, and they know.
Hence Simon got his job as part of a tokenism on the workfloor — a tokenism that has been tolerated up to now by the Government it does not fool, and by its Fair Employment Agency in Belfast which hasn't the powers to end it.
Outside work, Simon and his mates — all ex-school friends and hence Catholics — hang out at different pubs and clubs for Protestant young people. Not because of any actual violence or intimidation, but through choice, through upbringing. And so the divide rumbles on.
Simon's Catholic parents until recently didn't employ a single Catholic in one of their larger shops. Not because of a policy of reverse discrimination, but because they simply chose the best man or woman for the job, and didn't take any notice of what school they went to. From their experiences in small business as both employers and initially as employees, they feel that the bigotry, the discrimination is mainly one way . Protestants discriminate against Catholics.
Now Cardinal Tomas 0 Fiaich, the Catholic Primate of All Ireland, said this not so long ago, and was roundly slagged off for doing so. But it would seem that he was voicing the views of the silent majority of Catholics, like Simon's parents.
It's hard to see how Tom King's admirable Fair Employment proposals will alter this situation. It would be political suicide for any Northern Ireland minister to state openly such views on the origins of bigotry, even if he shared them. Witness Cardinal 0 Fiaich's pummeling.
But reading through the glossy and cogently argued brochure on the new scheme to set up a Fair Employment Commission and a separate judicial Fair Employment Tribunal, there seems no obvious or immediate niche to deal with Simon's dilemma, and those of young lads like him. They could try to fight their employer through the system on the grounds of his practice of indirect discrimination. That is a lengthy business, and holds out no guarantee that at the end of it all, that same employer, if found guilty, will then turn round and say "Simon come and be my foreman".
He could simply leave and look around for another employer, more open minded, and more devoted to the spirit and practice of the fair employment certificates that the FEA has been handing out. And it would be a mistake to imagine that these don't exist.
But the jobs market is not buoyant in Northern Ireland, despite the much vaunted promise of "The Ultimate Dream" liner to be built at Harland and Woolf, the stateowned shipbuilders in East Belfast. Such large scale infusions of government and EEC cash into the Northern Ireland jobs' market does little to help the young unemployed of small rural towns — in the short term at least. Another failure to "trickle down".
In the short term there is no easy answer. Tom King, his predecessors and his replacements, have to battle with that realisation every day in Northern Ireland. And the new teeth given to the FEA will undoubtedly make things better. As will government investment in industry there, in employment for both communities.
And for Simon? Well he could just rejoice in the constantcy of rural life in Northern Ireland that is so pleasing to the fleeting visitor. He could be seduced by it, even realising its constrictions on his future, and sit back and accept it.
But he won't, and the Government mustn't let him. The White Paper promises careful monitoring over a five year period to ensure that fair employment laws are effective. To be effective, they have to deal with the problems facing young men like Simon in the workplace. Tom King has grasped the nettle. He must now follow through with determination on the promise.