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

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 -----------------------------------------------------------------

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Duty Manager is required to join one of the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Leader

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Team Leader is required to join one of the l...

Recruitment Genius: Chef

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Chef is required to join one of the largest ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is required to jo...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor