Only Jobs Will Keep The Troubles At Bay

At a recent White House gala, President Clinton mingled with hundreds of U.S. and Irish corporate executives to cajole them into investing in Northern Ireland. The nine-month-long cease-fire is holding, Clinton argued, and now all that's needed is a peace dividend to lock it in place for good.

But the President may be underestimating how difficult it will be to translate the goodwill generated by the May 25-26 White House conference on Northern Ireland into real social change. After 25 years of sectarian violence, the economic fundamentals that fueled the conflict are still very much the same. Protestants still hold the lion's share of top jobs, while Catholics complain of high unemployment, lack of promotion, and, most crucial of all, lack of investment in the areas they live in.

Today, shootings by hooded gunmen are almost a thing of the past. But the unemployment rate for Catholic men is still 23%--more than twice that for Protestants. The situation hasn't improved that much from 1975. The unemployment rate for women is slightly lower, but many work part-time and are paid less. Latest available figures show that in 1993, average gross weekly income for Protestant households was $500--17% higher than for Catholics.

Northern Ireland does have tough fair-employment laws. Numerous employers have had to pay compensation for fostering a sectarian atmosphere or just failing to promote qualified workers. And Fair Employment Commission President Bob Cooper believes his agency has helped many Catholics move out of low-paid, low-skills jobs. In four years, for example, they've gained 4.1% more managerial jobs. But even Cooper says such efforts have their limits. "The area where the least change has taken place is unemployment," he admits.

While some employers just don't want to hire Catholics, major establishments are trying to redress the balance. For example, defense contractor Shorts Brothers PLC, a unit of Canada's Bombardier Group was showcased by the White House as exemplary for hiring Catholics. As Northern Ireland's largest private employer, with 8,000 workers, it built a small production unit on the outskirts of heavily Catholic West Belfast and a recruitment and training center on neutral turf in Belfast's city center.

But despite all the good intentions, Shorts hasn't added that many new jobs--and when it does, they are often not located in areas where Catholics live. Catholic employment has grown from 5% in 1983 to just 14% now, even though Catholics represent 38% of the province's 550,000 overall workforce.

The British government's answer: Expand the economy. "You cannot move the number [of employed people] up any faster if you're working with a stable workforce," says Baroness Jean Denton, Northern Ireland's economic development minister. "You need investment. You need jobs."

OFF LIMITS. New investment is starting to trickle in. The Industrial Development Board, an economic development agency, reports a threefold increase in inquiries from overseas companies. Since the peace process began, six companies have agreed to invest $100 million and create almost 1,200 new jobs. Investors include such multinationals as South Korea's Daewoo Corp., which is building a plant to make videocassette recorders, and U.S. disk-drive manufacturer Seagate Technology Inc.

But potential employers aren't flocking to West Belfast. Companies cite the risk of terrorist attacks as their main reason for staying away, but even in Derry, where such attacks were rare, most of the big investments have gone to the Protestant side of the city.

In a less divided society, plant location wouldn't be as big an issue. But in Belfast, neighborhoods identified with one group are pretty much off-limits for the other side. For instance, one study reported that young Catholic trainees chose to risk a dash across the city's main beltway on foot to reach a training center rather than walk five minutes through a Protestant neighborhood.

For now, violence is dormant in Northern Ireland. But unless new

jobs are located in Catholic areas and adequate support services exist,

the province's troubles could easily


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