Ulster employers pay high price for bias: Religious and political discrimination in the workplace is still rife in Northern Ireland 25 years after a pledge to end it, an Independent analysis of fair-employment cases shows. David McKittrick reports

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TWENTY-FIVE years ago on 19 August 1969, the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, issued the first Downing Street declaration. Signalling an end to religious partiality, it announced: 'Every citizen of Northern Ireland is entitled to the same equality of treatment and freedom from discrimination as obtains in the rest of the UK.'

It was a clear sign that the civil rights movement had won the argument and convinced the world that anti-Catholic discrimination was entrenched in the Northern Ireland system. Optimists looked forward to an equitable society where discrimination would become a thing of the past.

The last 25 years have brought a great many changes in Northern Ireland. But evidence of persisting discrimination is provided on an almost-weekly basis by fair employment tribunals. In the last financial year the tribunals made awards in 18 cases, while 32 more were settled. Half a million pounds a year is being paid out.

This has become a major worry for employers, who fear becoming embroiled in expensive discrimination controversies which can damage their reputation. The head of a major city-centre concern recently confided: 'I have two real nightmares. One is a bomb at our offices that would hurt some of our people. The other is somebody taking a fair-employment case against us.'

Management consultants in Belfast are now offering advice on fair-employment cases. Last month, for example, scores of executives from companies in the Belfast area with more than 100 employees, gathered at a seminar on how to cope with the issue. Lectures covered general investigations into companies, the rights of employers under investigation and important tribunal decisions.

A series of public and private concerns have already had particularly bruising encounters with tribunals. Some cases have run for weeks, attracting daily publicity in the Belfast newspapers and involving substantial fees to lawyers.

A senior management figure in a company that has paid out large sums in a number of cases said privately that his company had learnt the hard way that the issue would not go away. He added: 'To start with we were mortified, but we've adjusted to it and in a way it's smartened us up. Procedures have been changed and it has all entered the consciousness now.'

When the tribunals were established many feared the system might not be strong enough to deal with the fair-employment issue, but most experts in the field now say they have performed beyond expectations. According to one nationalist politician: 'It's been a big breakthrough for equality campaigners. At senior management level they're copping on: they're worried about business, the effect on customers and so on, because they're afraid Catholics will start boycotting them. But all these cases indicate that at lower management level and on the shop floor the discrimination is just going on the same as ever.'

Patricia McKeown, deputy regional secretary of the union Unison, said a number of concerns, including some health boards, were 'buying out' cases, while insisting on no-publicity clauses. She said: 'A lot of public money is being paid out like this, with a complete lack of accountability . . . it's not bringing the bad practices out into the open, it's not doing anything to change them.'

Leading article, page 13