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Text: A M Gallagher ... Page Design: Fionnuala McKenna

Majority Minority Review 2
Employment, Unemployment and Religion in Northern Ireland

by A M Gallagher



Following the results of the 1971 census and the identification of Catholic disadvantage, the Fair Employment Agency commissioned a number of research reports which sought to assess the merits of various explanations of this disadvantage. The next three sections of this review will examine these reports and point to related relevant research. This section will examine evidence on the relationship between the education system and employment, and on attitudes to work. The arguments addressed include whether employment differentials can be explained by a lack of qualifications among Catholic school leavers, or by the 'Protestant work ethic'. Section five will focus on social mobility studies which examined whether contemporary inequalities were simply the reproduction of past inequalities. Section six will examine research on the location of industry which attempted to assess whether or not Government industrial policy had discriminated against areas of Northern Ireland with a predominantly Catholic population.


There are two parallel school systems for primary and secondary pupils in Northern Ireland, one for mainly Catholic pupils and one for mainly Protestant pupils (Darby et al., 1977; Gallagher, 1989). This de facto segregation in education may explain differential employment patterns in the two communities if the Catholic system is, in labour market terms, inferior. This may be so if leavers from Catholic schools have markedly poorer qualifications, compared with their peers from the Protestant schools. Alternatively, there may be a difference in the type of subjects emphasised in both school systems which disadvantages leavers from Catholic schools at the point of entry to the labour market.

An early attempt to examine the link between educational attainment and occupational achievement was provided by Boyle (1976). This study obtained data on 12,669 males from the 1971 census and more detailed information from 5,416 of these who replied to a postal survey.

Overall Boyle found that educational attainment and occupational achievement were linked and that Protestants did better on both compared with Catholics. However, a number of factors mediated educational attainment and occupational achievement: for example, people from urban backgrounds did better on both counts than those from rural backgrounds. When these mediating factors were taken into account the educational advantage enjoyed by Protestants was only marginal. Therefore Boyle concluded that his data indicated no support for the idea that the Catholic education system provided a lower standard of education: rather, he suggested, 'the lower attainment rate of Catholics is due entirely to their disadvantageous social backgrounds' (Boyle, 1976, p96).

Boyle went on to examine the link to occupational achievement and again found a number of mediating factors. When these mediating factors were taken into account a dual effect was identified. Well-educated Catholics, ie those with university education, did not appear to suffer any disadvantage in occupational achievement compared with their Protestant peers. Boyle related this to Aunger's identification of high Catholic representation in certain professions involved with servicing their own community.

By contrast, less well-educated Catholics did suffer a disadvantage and this increased over their occupational careers: thus, for their first job 4.5% fewer Catholics than Protestants in this category had achieved a non-manual occupation and this gap had widened to 9% for present occupations.

Boyle concluded that while Catholics suffered no educational disadvantage as such, they were "nevertheless caught in a cycle in which lower occupational status leads to lower educational attainment which leads to lower occupational status and so on. This cycle is particularly evident among the less well educated Catholics where it is reinforced by the fact that being a Catholic is a positive disadvantage in the job market" (Boyle, 1976, p99).

Educational qualifications

A later series of studies (Osborne, 1985; Osborne and Murray, 1978; Osborne, 1985; Osborne et al., 1989) examined O and A Level passes and school leaver statistics in order to assess differences between the two religious school systems (these are reviewed in Gallagher, 1989). Considering qualifications first, the broad pattern revealed was that prior to the mid-1970s proportionately fewer pupils in Catholic schools were obtaining 0 and A Level passes than might have been expected. From the mid- 1970s to the early 1980s the gap between the school systems declined and, over the last five years or so has remained fairly stable (cf. Osborne et al., 1989, p142). It is possible that much of the current gap in attainment is explained by the smaller proportion of pupils in the Catholic school system attending grammar schools (Livingstone, 1987; Gallagher, 1989; Osborne et al., 1989).

Curriculum issues

Information on the curriculum offered by Catholic and Protestant schools is somewhat different in that the patterns identified by Osborne and Murray (1978) have remained fairly intact (Osborne et al., 1989) (although see 'A Level Choices' below). This pattern is that Catholic schools appear to place greater emphasis on humanities subjects compared with Protestant schools, while Protestant schools appear to place greater emphasis on scientific/technological subjects than Catholic schools (see figure 4.1). Why these patterns have developed and been maintained has yet to be satisfactorily explained although a number of suggestions have been put forward. One suggestion is that the curriculum difference may be explained by the differential funding of Catholic and Protestant schools, such that Catholic schools have not been able to provide the same level of resources for scientific or technical subjects. A second suggestion is that the curriculum difference is a reflection of the 'ethos' of Catholic schools. A third suggestion is that Catholic schools have not placed an emphasis on scientific/technical subjects because of a belief that discrimination in the labour market largely foreclosed opportunities where qualifications in such subjects were of most relevance.

Figure 4.1: A Level Combinations by religion

It should be noted that there is no obvious link between these curricular differences in schools and employment prospects, although such a link has been identified for higher education students (discussed below). Cooper (1981), for example, pointed to the fact that in the past there had been "an appallingly low level of Catholic participation in many occupations, particularly in the public sector, where it is widely recognised that there is a strong, inbuilt bias in favour of candidates who are strong in the humanities" (p4). In addition, Murray and Osborne (1983) have argued that the link between educational qualifications and occupational achievement is heavily dependent on economic conditions and occupational level.


A series of surveys of entrants to higher education have provided detailed information on the links between higher education and the labour market (Osborne et al., 1983; Osborne et al., 1987; Osborne et al., 1988; Cormack et al., 1989). In 1980 all entrants to higher education from Northern Ireland in 1973 and 1979 were surveyed. The 1979 entrants were surveyed again in 1985/6 along with all the 1985 entrants. The data collected allowed for an examination of educational qualifications at the point of entry to higher education, subjects studied in higher education and where they were studied, and occupational achievement after graduation. The last aspect is of most interest for this review.

Occupations of graduates

Osborne et al. (1983 Pps l97-8) reported on the occupations achieved, in 1980, by the 1973 entrants. Among the differences found were that about a fifth of Protestant men were employed as engineers, technologists or scientists, compared with a tenth of Catholic men. By contrast, a quarter of Catholic men were in teaching, routine clerical jobs or social welfare or related occupations, compared with a little under a fifth of Protestant men.

For women the most significant differences were in comparison with men, but some religious differences were found. Thus, for example, around a quarter of Protestant women, but over a third of Catholic women, were teachers. Also, whereas a tenth of Protestant women were doctors or dentists, this was the case for less than a twentieth of Catholics.

Osborne et al. (1983) concluded that the patterns revealed by the survey seemed to at least partially continue the occupational differences identified in the 1971 census (Aunger, 1983). However there were broadly equal proportions of Protestants and Catholics found in certain categories, such as management/ administration and as lawyers or accountants.

Salary levels of graduates

More detailed information became available from the survey, in 1985/6, of 1979 entrants to higher education: in particular, information on salary levels was collected along with occupation achieved (Osborne et al, 1987; Osborne et al., 1988; Miller et al., 1990).

Salary levels were found to be related to the type of course studied in higher education, the type of occupation achieved and the place of domicile. Thus, those who studied medicine/health courses had the highest salaries, while those who studied languages/arts courses had the lowest; those working as professionals in science, technology and engineering had the highest salaries while those in clerical/selling occupations had among the lowest; and those who lived outside Northern Ireland had higher salaries than those living in Northern Ireland.

Overall Protestants had significantly higher salaries than Catholics. This difference remained when place of domicile and degree level were taken into account. Thus, if those who lived in Northern Ireland and those who lived outside Northern Ireland were considered separately, Protestants earned more than Catholics among both categories; similarly, for those with the two highest degree levels, and for those with a degree level below this, Protestants still earned significantly more than Catholics.

A further analysis was necessary to assess the interactions between these variables in accounting for the advantage gained by Protestant graduates in the labour market: in particular, it was necessary to assess the extent to which religious affiliation alone accounted for the observed differences. Miller et al. (1990) presented the results of this analysis and suggested that while religious affiliation did effect first activity, ie the employment position immediately after graduation, it had no effect on the employment position in 1985/6. At this stage it appeared that the religion factor was subsumed within other factors, in particular the subject studied in higher education. This finding is significant as it represents the first clear evidence of an impact of educational differences on employment opportunity.

Miller et al. described the implications of the analysis as follows:

There is a 'high road' travelled by those in the cohort who come from middle-class backgrounds, attain high A Level results in science- or technologically-based subjects at secondary level and continue in the same type of subjects in higher education, often leaving Northern Ireland, where they obtain good degree results. These students are then more likely to succeed in converting their academic qualifications into well-paid work. There is also a 'low road' frequented by students from working-class backgrounds, who receive lower A Level marks in non-science secondary subjects and then continue on in the same manner in higher education. These students are more likely to find themselves unemployed or in jobs for which higher academic qualifications are not necessary.
Miller et al.'s analysis suggests that those who follow the 'high road' are predominately male and Protestant, while those who follow the 'low road' are predominately female and Catholic. However, they stress that religious differences in outcomes are a consequence of the other factors, rather than an influence in its own right. Thus, Protestants who follow the 'low road' pattern fare no better than similarly placed Catholics.

Patterns of employment

At a somewhat broader level the higher education surveys have pointed to changing patterns of employment in Northern Ireland. Firstly, Miller et al. pointed to a series of demographic changes that appear to have been influenced by changing economic circumstances in recent years: there has been a reduction in Catholic out-migration from Northern Ireland and an increase in Protestant out-migration, particularly among the best qualified going to British universities. Secondly, the higher education surveys have pointed to a higher rate of Catholic returnees from those who entered higher education in Britain. In addition there are few entrants to higher education in Northern Ireland coming from outside the province.

These patterns may be linked to Miller et al.'s identification of an apparent breakdown in the pattern of Catholic entry to middle-class occupations identified by Aunger in his analysis of the 1971 census: this argument suggested that the existing Catholic middle-class largely depended on service occupations in the context of a segregated society (see above, and sections two and five). Miller et al. suggest that Catholics appeared to be entering the more 'universal' middle-class employment positions (see Osborne, 1987, and Cormack and Osborne, 1987, for a further discussion on evidence on this development). One possible explanation for this change is a reduction in discriminatory practices that previously acted as a barrier to Catholics. An alternative, or perhaps complementary, explanation suggests that the demographic changes described above have reduced the potential pool of applicants to these positions to the extent that employers have had to recruit Catholics.

At a policy level the effects identified by Miller et al., albeit that they effect a limited, if important, element of those entering the labour market, might be ameliorated somewhat if Catholic schools gave greater emphasis to scientific and technological subjects. In other words it leads back to the curriculum differences in schools identified in research described above. This in turn leads back to the question of why those curricular differences developed in the first place.

A Level choices

Before looking at this issue, however, it should be noted that recent research has indicated some movement in this direction. Cormack et al. (1989) reported a study of factors influencing post A Level destinations. The data was collected from a series of interviews with a sample of potential entrants to higher education in 1985, who were re-interviewed in 1986/7 to establish what options had been taken up.

They found that while more Protestants than Catholics had a science-dominated range of O Level subjects, and more Catholics than Protestants had an arts-dominated range, this difference was not evident for A Level combinations (Pp l04-8). The religious patterns differed from that found some years ago and suggested that where convergence was taking place between those educated in Protestant and Catholic schools, it was at the stage when students moved from a variety of 0 Level subjects to the narrower choice available at A Level, followed by a single-subject choice in higher education (p115).

Thus, although differences remained in the religious patterns of higher education courses studied, the trend was towards convergence between the two groups. The tracking across O Level to A Level to higher education course suggested that A Level choice largely determineed the last stage. As far as religion was concerned, what little movement occured tended to reduce the significance of association between religion of schooling and subject choice (Pp 122-127).


The emergent picture from this research is that one consequence of the parallel school systems in Northern Ireland has been some difference in the educational experience of Protestants and Catholics: specifically, leavers from Protestant schools have better qualifications compared with leavers from Catholic schools, although this difference was greater in the past; and secondly, the curriculum provided by Catholic schools has somewhat different emphases compared with that of Protestant schools. The problem lies in determining whether or not this has impacted on the employment opportunities of Protestants and Catholics.

The one area where evidence does suggest an educational impact is for graduates: students who studied for social science or arts degrees, or who stayed in Northern Ireland tended to command lower salaries compared with those who studied for science or engineering degrees, or who left Northern Ireland. In practice proportionately more Catholics studied for social science or arts degrees, and stayed in Northern Ireland. Clearly if Catholic grammar schools placed more emphasis on science or technology subjects this may alter the existing balance within university degree courses and hence labour market opportunity.

It should not be forgotten, of course, that graduates form a fairly small section of the labour market, and that until relatively recently a majority of school-leavers had no formal qualifications of any kind. For this reason, patterns of educational qualifications may tell us relatively little about mature patterns of employment. Conversely, for younger age-groups, increased certification may lead to a 'tightening bond' between qualifications and labour market opportunity.

A further question raised by this discussion is why the attainment and curriculum differences exist between the school systems. Possible explanations were suggested above, ie the proportionately fewer places in Catholic grammar schools, the differential funding arrangments for schools and school ethos (Osborne et al., 1989). As yet insufficient evidence exists to come to any firm conclusions on this although work currently underway should provide some indications in the near future. Existing curricular differences between Protestant and Catholic schools are likely to diminish because of the introduction of a common curriculum over the next few years although it remains unclear whether the level of financial support for Catholic schools will be increased. For the moment this section will continue with one possible consequence of the impact of school ethos.


The discussion so far has largely concentrated on empirical differences between the school systems. It is possible that a more important difference relates to 'school ethos', that is the values and attitudes inculcated to pupils during their educational careers (see for example, Murray, 1985). This issue will be examined next.

Writing in 1955, Thomas Wilson opposed the view that Catholics were entitled to a third of University chairs or of administrative posts in line with their proportion in the population:

... ability and inclination, together with the competition of people from outside Ulster altogether, may dictate differently. As for business life, Presbyterians and Jews are probably endowed with more business acumen than Irish Catholics.
Arguing that Catholic grievances of discrimination in employment were not very real, he went on:
They have less to complain about than the US negroes, and their lot is a very pleasant one as compared with the nationalists in, say the Ukraine For generations they were the underdogs, the despised 'croppies', the adherents of a persecuted religion, who were kept out of public affairs by their Protestant conquerors. They were made to feel inferior, and to make matters worse they often were inferior. If only in those personal qualities that make for success in competitive economic life. (Wilson, 1955, Pp208-209: cited in O'Dowd et al, 1980, p61).
Even if one ignores the rather unpleasant tones of these statements, it is possible that a Catholic and Protestant from identical social backgrounds will achieve differently if their drives to succeed differ. A variant of this view, based on the idea of the 'Protestant work ethic', has been offered as a possible explanation for employment differentials between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. As part of a broader examination of social mobility, Miller (1978) obtained the attitudes to work of a sample of 2,416 men between the ages of 18 and 64; the survey was carried out in 1973/4.

Miller found that the attitudes to work of Catholics and Protestants were almost identical. The respondents' views on work satisfaction, the moral dimension to work, personal ambition and the equality of women were highly similar and differed only on the strength of the expressed opinion. Commenting on these findings the Chairman of the FEA said, "if there is a Protestant work ethic it is as strong on the Falls as on the Shankill" (Cooper, 1981, p3). In a similar vein, Miller concluded that his report did not support the argument that differing attitudes towards work might explain existing inequalities between the communities.

More recent research on a cohort of young people, aged 16 years in 1984, examined their attitudes to work (McWhirter, 1989). Again no differences were found in the attitudes of Catholic and Protestant respondents:

Evidence from different stages of the Cohort Study converge to suggest that the Protestant and Catholic young people in the study actually share many similar positive work-related aspirations and attitudes (McWhirter, 1989, p77).
Despite the high level of agreement between Catholics and Protestants in Miller's report, two questionnaire items were answered differently. Both may be thought to relate to the issue of discrimination (see figures 4.2 and 4.3). Figure 4.2 shows the levels of agreement and disagreement to the statement that 'getting ahead depends on knowing the right people'. As figure 4.2 makes clear more Catholics agreed with this statement than Protestants. A more fundamental level of disagreement is shown in figure 4.3, which indicates responses to the statement 'one of the main causes of the Troubles is the lack of job opportunities for Roman Catholics because Protestants are given preference'. While almost four-fifths of Catholics agreed with this statement, a similar proportion of Protestants disagreed with it. In other words, if 'attitudes' influence different religious patterns in employment it is not in attitudes to work, but rather a perception by Catholics that they are not likely to receive fair and equal treatment in the labour market. An attempt was made to address this issue in the 1989 Fair Employment Act (see section 10).

Figure 4.2: Perceptions that informal networks influence job prospects

Figure 4.3: Perceptions that Protestants are given preference in jobs


Data for figure 4.1: Subject combinations of A Level students by religion (percentages)
(source: table 3.1, Osborne et al., 1989)

Data for figure 4.2: Responses to the statement "Getting ahead at work depends on knowing the right people" by religion (percentages)
(source: Miller, 1978, p12)
very much
a little
a little
very much

Data for figure 4.3: Responses to the statement "One of the main causes of the Troubles is the lack of job opportunities for Roman Catholics because Protestants are given preference" by religion (percentages)
(source: Miller, 1978, p15)
agree very much
agree a little
don't know
disagree a little
disagree very much

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