Combating allegations of employment bias against Northern Ireland's Roman Catholics is a central point in the 10-day visit of British minister Thomas King to the United States. Mr. King, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, arrived in the US Saturday in an effort to find jobs for Northern Ireland's workers in US firms here.
He is anxious to assure influential Irish-Americans that the British government is doing all it can to ensure equality of job opportunity in Ulster, as the six counties that make up Northern Ireland are known. Details of King's visit are being kept secret for security reasons. However, he is expected to meet with Reagan officials and leading business leaders while in the US.
The British government last week published a strict code of conduct which sets a deadline for employers to establish equal job opportunity procedures.
Firms refusing to do so may be denied government assistance in the form of loans, grants, and contracts. Employers will be required to check on the religious affiliation of employees and job applicants, and to take steps to correct imbalances.
And, employers seeking public contracts must prohibit the display of flags, emblems, and graffiti they think might offend a section of the work force. This is a sensitive subject, and employees have been known to walk out of factories over such issues.
King argues that this code of conduct, which has Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's personal backing, is a more effective way of combating job discrimination than the so-called MacBride principles (named after Irish Nobel Peace Prize winner Sean MacBride). The British government regards the MacBride principles as counterproductive and likely to compel US firms in Northern Ireland to discriminate in favor of Catholics who are twice as likely as Protestants to be unemployed.
The MacBride principles would require employers to take affirmative actions on behalf of Catholics. Already some 11 percent of the workers in Ulster are on the payrolls of US-based companies, and the MacBride principles, which have been adopted by five state and four city legislatures in the US, could lead to American disinvestment.
King is anxious to promote the advantages of the government's new code of conduct. In a province with some 20 percent unemployment, the loss of investment would be extremely counterproductive. ``We do not want a situation where there is only equality of misery'' King said during a radio broadcast prior to his US departure.
Job hunting for Northern Ireland's workers is King's primary objective as he travels in the US. And, he points to the record of American firms such as Du Pont and Ford which have set up successful operations in Ulster.
In a report issued last week, Ford refuted allegations that Roman Catholics were being discriminated against, at its plant south of Belfast. Following an internal investigation by a senior management team from the US and Europe, Ford revealed that 38.4 percent of its employees were Catholic, and 57 percent Protestant. This pattern of employment was in line with religious groupings in the plant recruitment area, where the Catholic population ranged between 30 percent and 40 percent.