Councils in Ulster reveal pattern of anti-Catholic bias: Belfast council was this week found guilty of religious discrimination, the latest suggestion of inequality in local government. David McKittrick reports

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IN THE late 1960s the Catholic belief that Unionists were abusing power in Northern Ireland's local councils was one of the principal factors in bringing the civil rights movement on to the streets. Today, a quarter of a century later, a series of disclosures is leading to claims that little has changed.

Under anti-discrimination legislation which was strengthened two years ago, fair employment tribunals have this year been handing down a series of verdicts which is causing concern in government circles and elsewhere.

Since May of this year, five of the 26 local councils have been found guilty of discriminating against Catholics. In addition, research by the Fair Employment Commission (FEC) shows that hardly any of the 26 have an equitably structured workforce.

The wider political significance of this is that local councils are one of the last bastions of Unionist control and are thus closely watched by Catholics as an indicator of whether Protestant politicians are prepared to share power. The councils themselves have little power, but have considerable symbolic importance since, in the absence of a devolved administration, they are the only local political forums.

The anti-Catholic image of some councils, in particular Belfast, is often cited by nationalists as evidence that Unionists think in terms of domination rather than partnership. This has an impact on the larger political scene and was one of the reasons why the recent talks did not succeed.

One senior Catholic politician said: 'Unionists may say they'll treat us as equals, but we look and see councils actively discriminating against Catholics. We see bigotry and sectarianism, and that makes it very hard to build trust.'

As the accompanying table illustrates, councils employ a smaller percentage of Catholics than other areas of the public sector. One of the key reasons for this is that the Government exercises close supervision in the other areas listed, while most councils are under direct Unionist control.

Unionists resent the existence of the FEC and often attack the concept as unnecessary. The FEC has complained that some councils adopt a negative attitude towards its investigations. Two years ago two Unionist councillors ripped up copies of the Fair Employment Act at a council meeting.

A series of FEC investigations into councils has revealed patterns of inequity. In two councils with nationalist majorities Protestants are under-represented, but Catholics are under-represented on many more. In some, the percentage of Catholics is broadly in line with the local population. In almost every instance, however, Catholics are under-represented in senior jobs within the council. In one batch of five councils, only five of 45 senior officers were Catholic, while in another batch there were only two Catholics among 66 senior staff.

The FEC concluded that at least 16 councils should take action to promote equality of opportunity. A number of councils rejected its reports while three - Ballymena, Craigavon and Limavady - have refused to sign a declaration making a commitment to equality of opportunity.

----------------------------------------------------------------- Religious representation in Northern Ireland public bodies (%) ----------------------------------------------------------------- Protestants Catholics Housing Executive 54 46 Health boards 56 44 Education boards 58 42 NI civil service 63 37 Local district councils 67 33 -----------------------------------------------------------------