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Britain Announces New Measures To Ban Religious Discrimination

May 26, 1988

LONDON (AP) _ New laws to combat discrimination of Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland’s job market will force companies to report annually on how many Catholics and Protestants they employ.

But the measures the government proposed on Wednesday stop short of imposing hiring quotas from among the 40 percent Catholic minority. Northern Ireland Secretary Tom King said that would be ″inflammatory.″

The laws, expected to be enacted by Parliament and take effect in mid-1989, mark the toughest attempt to end job discrimination in British-run Northern Ireland, where Catholic unemployment runs at 2 1/2 times the Protestant rate.

The measures were spurred partly by threats of disinvestment from the United States, an anti-discrimination tactic the British government calls misguided.

Seven American states have endorsed fair employment principles put forward in 1984 by the late Irish statesman Sean MacBride that call for disinvestment measures against companies in Northern Ireland accused of religious bias.

Several more states are expected to follow suit. American investment accounts for nearly 14 percent of the jobs in Northern Ireland.

Under the new laws, companies with more than 25 employees - and later with 10 or more - will have to submit annual reports on the religious composition of the workforce to a new body, the Fair Employment Commission. Failure to do so will be a criminal offense punishable by a fine of up to $3,720.

The laws would also ban ″indirect discrimination″ in hiring practices, such as taking recruits from a single school - Catholics and Protestant children are educated separately - or getting current employees to find new workers.

The commission, replacing a watchdog body set up in 1976, will have powers to order companies to recruit from a wider area, such as advertising in Catholic publications.

Companies that ignore commission directives could be charged with contempt of court and denied government contracts.

Northern Ireland is among the most economically depressed regions of the United Kingdom. The province’s unemployment rate of 17.4 percent is double the national average.

The Social Democratic Labor Party, the province’s main moderate Catholic party, criticized the moves as not being tough enough.

Alasdair MacLaughlin, director of the Confederation of British Industry in Northern Ireland, said the employers’ organization was concerned about the way in which targets and timetables are to be used.

″It will be essential that both government and the Fair Employment Commission on a continuing basis make it crystal clear that the object of the legislation is not to create or impose quotas,″ he said.

In London, the opposition Labor Party’s spokesman on Northern Ireland, Kevin McNamara, said the lack of any targets to judge the success of the proposed legislation was a government ″cop-out.″

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