Ulster: Policies that have failed to tackle the poverty trap: After 20 years of direct rule from London, there is still a wide socio-economic gap between the communities. David McKittrick reports

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The Independent Online
FOR more than two decades the Government has been committed to remedying the imbalances in a society shaped by half a century of one-party Unionist rule and institutionalised favouritism towards Protestants.

Anti-discrimination agencies have been in place since the mid-70s and anti-discrimination laws were strengthened in 1990. Considerable strides have been made in finding jobs for Catholics, especially in the civil service and public sector.

But a combination of factors has meant that most of the advances hoped for have not come about, and in some ways conditions have worsened. The fact that the unemployment rate for Catholic men has risen from 17 per cent in 1971 to 28 per cent today is just one of many indicators that much of the Catholic population remains caught fast in a poverty trap.

In the past few years in particular many millions of pounds has been diverted towards the most disadvantaged areas, and a major five-year review is under way. But the economic difficulties of the last two decades, in combination with the violence and other factors, mean that Catholics remain a seriously disadvantaged minority.

It is clear that factors other than present-day discrimination play a part in maintaining inequality. Many Catholics live in areas of high unemployment, particularly the west, and work in industries suffering from high unemployment. Weaknesses in the Catholic school system mean it produces fewer science specialists.

Catholics are reluctant to join the security forces and often unwilling to work in Protestant areas where many Catholic workers have been shot dead by loyalists. And the Catholic population is younger, and therefore more subject to high jobless rates than Protestants.

Within Northern Ireland opinions vary widely on the causes of the disparity. One commentator noted: 'In the minds of many people disadvantage and discrimination are one and the same.' But some sections of Unionist political and academic opinion deny that discrimination is - or indeed ever was - a significant problem.

In this argument perception is all. When one opinion poll asked: 'Do Protestants and Catholics have the same chance of a job?' two-thirds of Catholics said they did not, while two-thirds of Protestants said they did.

While this debate continues, so too does Catholic unemployment and poverty, together with the firm belief that the disadvantage is sustained by deliberate discrimination. Taken together these are two of the most potent factors in maintaining alienation and thus support for terrorism.