The Government's Fair Employment White Paper was launched last month. Our correspondent in the North of Ireland Stephen McBrearty considers its effectiveness in preventing discrimination against Catholics seeking employment.
LET US just say John and for that matter Joan, young Catholics, qualified, see an advertisement in the national press and decide to apply for the post. They are called for interview. They feel that they have presented themselves well, and in the course of the interview they meet with a few of the other candidates and they discover they are more qualified than most. This makes them feel slightly more confident. They await a letter or 'phone call indicating the appointment to the post, but alas it is not to be. They are just not successful.
Looking at the above scenario you may feel that the candidates were unfortunate, that obviously neither of them fulfilled the criteria required for the post outside of the fact that they had the right qualifications. You could also say that at the discretion of the interviewing panel or interviewer, they were just not right for the job.
You wouldn't necessarily question any form of discrimination — not at first glance! But if truth be known, John or Joan were the best candidates, the most qualified, the most suitable in terms of presentation. You could even say they were right for the job. But they are not going to be employed because the employer is a bigot, and he doesn't want a Catholic working for his firm. He already employs eight people, good Presbyterians loyal to their country. He doesn't care, as an employer, what the legislation brought about through the Fair Employment Agency may say — it is his company, and he will employ who he wants.
You may ask, how did the employer kdow that John or Joan were Catholic? Well that is easy! When applying the applicants were asked for qualifications and details of schools attended. John went to the Christian Brothers, Joan was taught by the nuns. Both live off the Falls Road in West Belfast, so not only are they Catholic, but a prospective employer could have well regarded them as would-be terrorists, because to be associated with Catholic schools and live in a Catholic ghetto means you are branded either Republican or Nationalist, and your chances of employment are most certainly lessened.
Now the Government — this present one as well as those past — have been more than aware of this problem. In fact the background note attached to the Fair Employment White Paper, launched last month, points out that the Government's legislative proposal is to strengthen the law against religious discrimination, and to promote genuine equality of job opportunities.
It is emphasised that the unemployment imbalance between the two communities in Northern Ireland has been an on-going problem. In other words, it is nothing new! They say in their background notes on discrimination that it was recognised as long ago as 1976, and it was then that Parliament instigated the Fair Employment Act, thus making discrimination in employment on religious grounds an offence. It established the Fair Employment Agency (FEA). Well let me assure you that the two communities had a problem which existed in this whole area of discrimination long before 1976. One would only have to know that the major industries in Belfast at that time, and prior to it, were located in predominantly Protestant / Loyalist areas, thus attracting only a token number of Catholic employees.
In examining the contents of the Government's new White Paper, we see that it sets out detailed proposals for a Fair Employment Bill which they (the Government) propose to introduce at the earliest opportunity. They see as their objective the strengthening and broadening of existing legislation. These laws already outlaw discrimination on the grounds of religious belief and political opinion.
The Government sees the present imbalance as being the result of many factors — social, geographic and economic. They would suggest that experience shows that the problem is often caused through indirect discrimination which can result from over reliance on one source of recruits, for example from a particular school, or the practice of canvassing the firms' own workforce .
In addition they see discrimination coming about through "self de-selection" would be employees who do not come forward because they believe they have little chance of being selected. The White Paper sees such indirect discrimination becoming illegal, and hence all employers will be required to actively practise religious equality of opportunity when recruiting staff.
Being objective about this White Paper, I recognise that great efforts have been made in counteracting the problem, and the majority of large industries are now striving to combat discrimination — especially those companies under direct Government control. However, it must be asked just how effective this White Paper will be in establishing fair employment when one of its legislative proposals calls for the public sector employers and those in the private sector with 25 or more employees (later to be 10) to monitor religious composition of their own work force, and to submit annual returns to a new Fair Employment Commission. One of the major questions raised here is what of those companies with 24 or less employees? Northern Ireland is full of such smallholdings! Let us hope that the reduction to the examination of 10 employees will take place very soon.
I do not feel, anyway, that such a procedure in itself is an answer to discrimination, and the whole question of the method used by employers in shortlisting and interviewing prospective employees needs to be examined.
The Government claims that monitoring will let both the employers and the Commission see the outcome of current employment practices, and so serve as a starting point for considering those changes that may be necessary. Yet it does not cover the employee! Who is to know how many employees a firm would have making an application for a job? How many would be Catholic; how many would be Protestant? What course can an applicant take when he or she feels that they have been discriminated against? Would it be based on the fact that they weren't called for interview? That the shortlist for the post ruled them out for an interview due to a criteria unknown to themselves? Or are they to instantly presume that they have actually been discriminated against on the grounds of religion? What proof would they have? If we examine once again the opening example we would have to ask ourselves, were John or Joan aware of the fact that the would-be employer was a bigot?
The Government believes, as I do myself, that the only acceptable basis for the selection and promotion of job applicants must be their ability and suitability for the post. Appointment on merit is central to the Government's fair employment policy. Northern Ireland falls short in applying this criteria in many of its employers.
To achieve any form of normality and stability in Northern Ireland, this whole area of fair employment must be the central pivot on which all government policies are based, both in relation to present employers, and in the creation of new industrial openings.
The Government will never be able to do enough in counteracting discrimination in Northern Ireland. It will be felt in the North that this White Paper is most certainly not enough. Let us hope that it will not be just another beginning by a governmental body in addressing a problem without fully gripping the full consequences of the problem and dealing with it positively.