The latest figures from the Labor Force Survey Religion Report show that the unemployment rate for Catholics is 8.3 percent, significantly higher than the rate for Protestants – 4.3 percent. The unemployment differential still sits at 1.9 for both sexes, which means Catholics are nearly twice as likely to be without jobs as Protestants.
The figures tend to confirm the findings of a recent report produced for the Assembly that said current policy is only having a “modest” impact on the differential in unemployment rates between the two communities.
But this conclusion is hotly contested by the Ulster Unionist Party, whose equality spokesman, Dermott Nesbitt, has produced a detailed booklet with tables of figures and statistics arguing that there is no institutionalized discrimination against Catholic workers.
Speaking at the launch of his booklet “Equality, A Society At Ease,” Nesbitt said the time had come for “republicans and nationalists to set aside their pandering to perception and instead deal with reality.”
“This piece of work destroys the propaganda of those who peddle a great lie,” he said. “They do this community a great disservice by continually claiming that Catholics get a raw deal. The simple truth is they don’t.
“In fact, in many respects, they get a better deal than Protestants. It is wrong for Sinn Fein and the SDLP to use the unemployment differential yardstick to say that Catholics are more likely to be unemployed.
“They are wrong to use this as a measure of discrimination. The unemployment differential is not a measure of discrimination or an indication of the lack of equality of opportunity.
“The reality is that when it comes to applicants and appointees, Catholics have a better outcome than one would expect. The composition of the workforce means that the labor market is working fairly,” Nesbitt said.
“It’s about time the SF and the SDLP stopped playing politics with religion by falsely claiming there is inequality. For republicans, the challenge is a big one.
“Without discrimination, then the justification in the eyes of many of them for the continued existence of the IRA is gone. They, and others, should stop pandering to perception and instead begin behaving responsibly so that we can have an honest and candid debate,” he said.
SDLP Assemblywoman Patricia Lewsley hit out at Nesbitt’s claims. “The reality is that discrimination is a problem in our society. You need only look at the cases coming out of the fair employment tribunal in recent times to know that,” she said.
“It is true that fair employment laws have increased equality of opportunity. But Dermott cannot claim any credit for that. After all, the UUP opposed every major improvement to our fair employment laws,” Lewsley added.
“We will not have real equality of opportunity until Catholic and Protestant unemployment rates are the same. That is what the agreement commits us to, and that is what we must achieve.”
Sinn Fein’s Dara O’Hagan said: “There has been a stubborn refusal of unionists to acknowledge the problem. There is a lack of progress because of unionism, not because the problem doesn’t exist.
“The debate is characterized by the inability and unwillingness of unionists to acknowledge that systematic and structural discrimination against Catholics and nationalists occurred,” she said.
“There has been a 160 percent increase in the number of applications to the fair employment tribunal over the past decade. Dermott Nesbitt has a vested interest in questioning the use of the unemployment differential because he wants to explain his refusal to back the equality agenda.
“Data demonstrates that Catholics are underrepresented in public and private sectors, relative to their proportion of the economically active population. While there is an increase in the Catholic share of employment, the share is still less than it should be and the gap has grown since 1971,” O’Hagan said.
“In 1971, Catholics were 31 percent of the economically active and had 29.1 percent of employment, a 1.9 percentage point gap. In 1991 Catholics were 39.8 percent of the economically active and had 36.3 percent of employment, a 3.5 percentage point gap,” she said.
“In 2001, Catholics were 43 percent of the economically active and had 39.5 percent of employment, a 3.5 percentage point gap. We are still a long way from achieving fair participation.”