Despite a series of reforms and progressively toughened legislation, job discrimination in both the public and private sectors is still widespread.
The evidence is contained in a detailed analysis of the results of fair employment tribunals set up in the province under 1990 anti- discrimination legislation. A stream of substantial awards and settlements have cost public bodies and private companies well over pounds 1m in the past two years. With more than 500 further such cases in the pipeline, millions more is likely to be paid out. The bulk of the money has gone to people claiming they were victims of anti-Catholic discrimination.
Before the tribunals, many fair employment experts contended that continuing job inequities in Ulster were due to historical hangovers rather than present practices. But the dozens of current cases upheld by the tribunals - the scale of which is indicated today for the first time by the Independent's inquiry - have forced a reassessment.
Labour's Ulster spokesman, Kevin McNamara, said: 'The dimensions of inequality have changed little in the last five years. Direct and virulent discrimination remains a fact of life, not least in parts of the public sector.'
The need for fair employment measures is contested by many Unionist politicians. The Ulster Unionist MP John Taylor said: 'This is a successful growth industry. People can get away with pounds 10,000 or more on the slightest pretext. It's outrageous.'
Tribunals have made awards totalling about pounds 700,000, 80 per cent of which has gone to Catholics. And at least pounds 370,000 of public money has been awarded against some of the biggest public sector employers, including elected councils, government-appointed health boards and educational establishments.
In a case involving one of the UK's largest security companies, a tribunal awarded Liza Neeson, a West Belfast Catholic woman, pounds 25,000 for what it described as 'high-handed, malicious, insulting and oppressive discrimination'. The tribunal was told letters had been left on the desk of Miss Neeson, then 17, stating: 'We know where you live', and 'UVF. Taigs out'. She had been introduced by a supervisor as 'This is Liza, our token Taig'.
Miss Neeson told the Independent: 'It's sad, but the lesson I take is: stay with your own; don't mix with anyone you don't know.'
The level of payments is expected to rise in the wake of a government decision to abolish the pounds 35,000 upper limit for awards.
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