Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Religious Discrimination, Disadvantage and Class

In 2003 I had a bit of a lost year. For the previous twelve months or so I’d spent a great time in Cuba learning Spanish at the University of Havana and enjoying Cuban life more generally and then on my return finishing my PhD. Having submitted and received my PhD, I had to find work to survive and so I took the offer of a contract at the West Belfast Economic Forum, a kind of research and lobby organisation for social and economic interests in West Belfast. During my time there I did a public debate on Religious Discrimination and Disadvantage with the Ulster Unionist Member of the Northern Assembly, Dermot Nesbitt. That there were still politicians who denied the existence of such disadvantage was highly dispiriting to say the least and I went into the debate with little enthusiasm. As it happened I managed to widen the debate, putting more emphasis on the issue of class than was normally done by nationalists and republicans, never mind unionist politicians who represented working-class loyalist constituencies. We talked past each other but, hopefully, I made some people from the nationalist community at least think about the narrowness of some of their own thinking on religious discrimination and how religious segmentation is related to social class and arises directly from specific conditions in capitalist development.

Posted below is my contribution to the well attended debate which took place in Whiterock Further Education College on 17 April 2003. The lecture was subsequently published in the West Belfast Economic Forum's Economic Bulletin.

I'd like to start by welcoming Dermot here today. He is one of the few unionist politicians who is prepared to engage openly with nationalists and republicans and actually enter what for many of his constituents will be seen as enemy territory. I look forward to the time when republicans get invited into unionist and loyalist areas and feel safe enough to accept and attend.

Nonetheless, however much I welcome Dermot's presence here this morning I have at least two reservations about this debate. First, I'm sceptical about Dermot's real motivation and intentions for being here today. I hope I'm wrong, but I can't help but think that that he comes here to lecture rather than listen. Second, it's now five years since the vast majority of the people of Ireland voted for the Belfast Agreement, one key feature of which is the recognised problem of continuing religious inequality in the north of Ireland, and the need to do something about it. If we are to stick to the word of the Agreement, as both Sinn Féin and the UUP agreed to do, then we should accept the responsibility to do something about this issue, rather than pretend that the problem has disappeared.

Having listened to Dermot and read his recent articles I have to admit to feeling a little depressed by his clear unwillingness to accept the glaring reality of continuing religious discrimination and disadvantage in our society today.

Let me put it simply and directly. This is a debate that should not have to take place and certainly not when the arguments made by Dermot are so weak and flawed.

There are many people in this room today who know more about the reality of religious discrimination than me, having been on the receiving end of it all their lives. It is somewhat ironic therefore when I ask myself why a Scottish atheist, brought up by Protestant parents, though someone who has lived in Whiterock ward for ten years, is standing here talking to you on the issue of religious discrimination and disadvantage. There are also many people here today who have fought against discrimination and disadvantage much more fiercely and for much longer than me. However, by standing back from the issue hopefully I can add some useful insights to an issue that I believe continues to scar our society.

Almost five years ago I wrote an article for the West Belfast Economic Forum's Bulletin entitled The Politics of Equality in the North of Ireland. Few will remember what I wrote, even those few people who may actually have read it at the time. Nevertheless, I think it's worth reiterating some of what I said at that time if only because I think most of the points I made still stand today. I started the article by referring to the mini-industry that had built up by academics and other analysts around the issue of religious discrimination and disadvantage. For over ten years voluminous research and analysis had been produced by different academics and protagonists, which at times resembled a quasi war given the heated and sometimes abusive nature of the debate.

On the one hand, there were those like the economist and former advisor to the First Minister, Graham Gudgin, who claimed, like Dermot, that religious discrimination was not an issue given that the unemployment differential between Catholics and Protestants could be explained away by differential demography, especially different birth and migration rates between the two religious groups. On the other hand, there were analysts who developed sophisticated econometric models which attempted to explain the unemployment differential by apportioning causes to such factors as different educational qualifications, working in different industrial sectors and occupations, social class composition, differential age structure, family size and a residual factor that was typically assumed to be, though rarely defined, as direct discrimination on the part of employers.

Despite all this analysis at that time, I concluded in 1998 that "much of this work had been relatively fruitless in terms of getting to the core of political and religious discrimination and inequality, producing agreed positions, coming up with effective policy solutions, never mind doing something effective about the problem."

At that time I argued it was important that analysts place equality issues in a broader context which attempted to encompass in a systemic manner the highly interrelated set of factors - social, economic, cultural, geographic and, most important, political and historic.

Five years on I don't think this has happened. In fact, even worse, not only have we had precious few new and insightful studies on religious discrimination and disadvantage since that time, but here we are still listening to Dermot's arguments which are based on an incredibly narrow, technocratic and simple arithmetic model which bears little resemblance to the complexity of social life.

As someone who has worked in academic circles I know only too well that the way in which knowledge, understanding, explanation and consequent policy implications are taken forward is by academics submitting their analysis to their fellow academic peers. Papers are presented at conferences or seminars, their methodology and findings are discussed, arguments are consequently revised and, finally, articles are published in academic journals. While differences of opinion may still exist, at least there are accepted levels of analytical correctness and rigour.

Now, I accept that Dermot is a politician, but he used to be an academic lecturer and he has worked closely on this issue for a number of years with the economist Graham Gudgin who has presented arguments very similar to those presented by Dermot this morning.

What's interesting is that Graham Gudgin's work on religious discrimination has to my knowledge never been accepted by his academic peers. I could be wrong, but I know of no article by either Dermot or Graham Gudgin that has been published in a reputable and tightly refereed academic journal. Rather, Graham Gudgin's analysis has been published in government documents, newspaper articles or political pamphlets where no refereeing process has taken place. The last time, I'm aware of, that Graham Gudgin's work was assessed openly in an academic journal was in 1997 when the Dublin-based economist John Bradley tore his model apart. As far as I'm aware a response to that critique by Graham Gudgin was never published. I'll not go into the details here, only to say that the fundamental methodological critique of Graham Gudgin's work was that the very factors that were presented to explain away discrimination and disadvantage were in fact part of the problem and were themselves never explained.

For example, Dermot, like Graham Gudgin, suggests that the reason why the unemployment differential continues is because the rate of growth of the Catholic population is greater than that of Protestants. In other words, there are said to be too many Catholics chasing too few jobs. What they don't explain, however, is why such a differential growth in population exists. Just because one religious group has a faster growth rate of its population than the other doesn't explain why the unemployment differential exists unless a reason for the population growth differential itself is presented. In other words, there is an interrelationship or circular causation between population growth and unemployment which works both ways. According to Dermot's line of thinking he could just as easily argue that differential unemployment rates between Catholics and Protestants explain differential population growth rates, rather than the other way round. Indeed, research from elsewhere shows that unemployment rates can influence population growth just as population growth can influence unemployment.

No reference is made by Dermot to the generally accepted finding from around the world that birth rates are associated in a highly complex manner with the level of socio-economic development and very specific historic, political and cultural factors. In the north of Ireland all these factors intermingle to create a social process which differentiates the two main religious communities. If you don't try and get to grips with these complex issues then highly sectarian, divisive and offensive policy conclusions can be drawn, and which, of course, have been drawn by some. Put very crudely, if it is argued that there are too many Catholics being born then the logical policy conclusion is forced birth control or forced emigration. I hardly need to say anything more on that apart from the clear fact that it highlights the highly sectarian line of thinking that Dermot's arguments can take us. It's one which he'd be well advised to distance himself from.

This discussion highlights another key issue that Dermot and others cloud over. This is the ambiguity and confusion that surround much of the terminology that is used in this debate. We need to be very clear on what we're talking about here. I'll mention just two terms: discrimination and disadvantage. These are words that are frequently substituted for each other as if they mean the same thing. They are not, though they are clearly related.

With regard to discrimination, the term is typically assumed to mean direct acts of prejudice against individual Catholics (or Protestants) in employment recruitment procedures. My feeling, and many here may disagree, is that this type of discrimination has reduced significantly over the past decade or more, though it has not been eradicated completely. This, I think, is largely the result of tightened fair employment legislation that has been introduced over the past decade and more. However, this is far from meaning that discrimination has disappeared as Dermot suggests. Much more important, as I've already alluded to, is the structural and systemic forms of discrimination that result from the workings of the underlying structures and processes of society and economy in the north of Ireland. Indeed, social and economic relations and policy decision making in the north of Ireland continue to be structured in such a manner that direct individual acts of discrimination would not have to occur at all for relative disadvantage between Catholics and Protestants to continue and be passed on from one generation to the next. In this context, while religious discrimination is not so explicitly seen, religious disadvantage is all too apparent

To show the current situation regarding religious disadvantage, let me show you some of the latest data from the 2001 Census of Population that were released recently.

Unemployment and economic inactivity differentials between Catholic and Protestant males - 2001

- For Catholic males the unemployment differential is 1.8 times greater than that of Protestant males.

- In contrast, Catholic males have half the proportion of retired males than Protestants.

- But, there are half as many more Catholic students than Protestants.

- Most important, almost three-quarters more Catholic men look after the home or family and 20% more Catholic men are permanently sick or disabled. These differentials suggest high levels of hidden unemployment. In other words, Catholic men who would previously have been defined as unemployed have been reclassified to other forms of economic inactivity due to the tightening of social security conditions and other factors such as the discouraged worker effect. This is a phenomenon seen across many parts of Europe, but one which is most prevalent for the most disadvantaged groups wherever they may be.

The issue of hidden unemployment means that the unemployment differential of 1.8 significantly understates the degree of relative disadvantage between Catholic and Protestant men.

Gaps in percentage shares between Catholics and Protestant men compared to expected economically active share

- These data show the other widely accepted form of relative disadvantage - the share
that Catholics and Protestants have in employment in comparison with what one would expect from their share of the economically active total.

- With regard to all forms of employment (full-time, part-time and self employment), Catholic men have a share 1.6 percentage points below what would be expected.

- However, if you look only at full-time employment, the percentage point difference is even greater at 3.3, a significant difference in proportionate terms.

- With regard to unemployment (an indicator not commonly used for some reason in terms of percentage shares) Catholic males have a share of total unemployment 14.4 percentage points above that which would be expected from their share of the economically active population.

- These statistics show something that has been ongoing for some time. There is continuing relative economic disadvantage or inequality between Catholic and Protestant men. This picture of relative disadvantage is also seen in the case of Catholic women, though to a lesser degree

These statistics are all at the regional level of the north of Ireland. What is important to understand is the degree of social and economic disadvantage at the more local level.

Let me show you some data which will be of interest in particular to those here who live in the surrounding areas of Upper Springfield and Whiterock.

Noble indicators of deprivation for Upper Springfield and Whiterock wards

The data for Upper Springfield and Whiterock show that, two almost wholly Catholic wards, suffer deep social and economic disadvantage compared to the rest of the north of Ireland. This is not exclusive to these two areas but something replicated across the rest of Catholic West Belfast, indeed across other Catholic areas in the north. For those who want more detailed information on this, take a look at the Economic Forum's publication Mapping West Belfast that came out last year.

- The data shown here are taken from an extensive analysis undertaken for NISRA by a leading English academic Professor Mike Noble. As such they have become known as the "Noble indicators of social deprivation". These data classify local areas in terms of a broad range of socio-economic indicators showing how deprived each area is in relation to others.

- In terms of multiple deprivation, which is an aggregate indicator of a range of deprivation measures, Whiterock and Upper Springfield rank 3rd and 11th respectively out of a total number of 566 wards in the north of Ireland.

- In terms of income deprivation the ranks are 3rd and 8th, with around two-thirds of households classified as income deprived.

- With regard to employment, Whiterock and Upper Springfield rank 13th and 34th respectively, with around one-fifth of households employment deprived.

- The two local wards come out worst in terms of health and disability status, with respective ranks of 2nd and 9th. In other words, Upper Springfield and Whiterock have proportionately extremely high numbers of unhealthy people.

- The most stark statistics are those for child poverty which show that over 80% of children aged under 16 in Upper Springfield and Whiterock live in poverty.

What is interesting from the Noble data on deprivation is that there are predominantly Protestant wards that also suffer deeply from socio-economic disadvantage. In West Belfast, for example, Shankill and St. Anne's wards also feature near the top of the league tables of disadvantage.

Noble indicators of deprivation for Protestant wards in West Belfast

- For example, St. Anne's ranks 4th and Shankill 10th in terms of multiple deprivation.

- In terms of employment, St. Anne's is 3rd and Shankill 7th.

- With regard to health status, 7th and 15th.

- Worst of all St. Anne's has the worst rank of educational deprivation across the whole of the north of Ireland, Shankill ranked 9th.

These depressing statistics raise an obvious question - does this mean that religion is not an important factor with regard to socio-economic disadvantage? The answer is a resounding no! What I've tried to say here is that socio-economic disadvantage has a number of dimensions. However, the one factor we are discussing here today, religion, is the key factor that defines all aspects of the society we live in and which of course formed the boundaries of the statelet within which we live. However, in addition to the religion factor is the key issue of social class and how people from lower social classes, such as those in Upper Springfield and Whiterock, and indeed the Shankill, continue to bear the brunt of lack of income, jobs, lower education levels, poor health status, environmental degradation and more.

Indeed, class is such an important factor in capitalist societies that in the case of the north of Ireland it manages to transcend religious differences in some specific geographic areas such as the Shankill because of the very way in which our society operates. A very large proportion of the Catholic population has been left behind in terms of socio-economic development, but so have very much smaller proportions of the Protestant population.

What concerns me is that these deep social and economic problems seem to be so far down the policy agendas of our political representatives, and I include Sinn Féin as well as unionist parties when I say this. For example, I have never heard Dermot argue as strongly on the need to empower working class Protestant areas in terms of jobs, incomes and education as much as he berates nationalist and republican politicians on the issue of religious discrimination. But then that's perhaps hardly surprising given the highly conservative and reactionary nature of unionist political thinking. Without wanting to make too cheap a political point, I wonder for example how often Dermot, as a junior minister for equality, has visited and engaged with people in working class unionist and loyalist areas. At least the political representatives in our area, whether they be ministers, MLAs or councillors, live and work among us, and therefore more openly accountable to us.

To finish, what is really going to reverse the deep religious- and class-based levels of relative disadvantage in our society today is not narrow, ill-informed analysis and sectarian political point making which passes for political debate, but a deep and fundamental transformation of society which meets the social, economic and political needs of working class communities, whether Catholic or Protestant. That doesn't mean a vacuous and demeaning equality of esteem between deeply disadvantaged Catholic and Protestant communities, but a radical assault on those social, economic and political factors and processes that continue to create such profound disadvantage and inequality. I would see this is a socialist strategy. Others may prefer to call it a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy. The point I'm trying to make here is that an approach targeted specifically at the socio-economic needs of all disadvantaged communities, whether they be Catholic or Protestant, would benefit all those who continue to suffer multiple social deprivation. However, because of the relatively higher proportion of Catholics who are disadvantaged, they would be the ones who benefit the most. That, I think, is the way forward.

The day I hear Dermot arguing for such an approach on the Shankill Road, never mind in Upper Springfield or Whiterock, I know things will have changed for the better.

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