WHILE hooded gunmen and graveside tears dominate the headlines from Northern Ireland, another, quieter fight is being waged to ease the distress of that lovely but embittered province. It's the fight to relieve unemployment. Joblessness brings hardship everywhere, but in Ulster it also feeds sectarian violence. Progress has been made; unemployment has dropped for 13 consecutive months. Even so, it stands at nearly 17 percent for the province, and is much higher in some areas. In certain Catholic neighborhoods, more than half the workers are without jobs.
Economic relief alone won't end the bloodshed, which has religious and political roots. But the despair and sense of injustice engendered by chronic unemployment among Catholics breeds sympathy for the IRA bombers.
The economic initiatives have two goals: more jobs, and fair jobs. The former must come first, for under British policy antidiscrimination measures will be applied only to new jobs, not to reallocating existing ones.
Together with the British government, Northern Ireland's Industrial Development Board is dangling generous incentives to attract foreign investment into the province. With some success. Montupet, a French company, plans to make Ford engine parts in the former De Lorean auto plant near Belfast (1,000 jobs). Daewoo Electronics of South Korea is setting up a VCR factory at Antrim (500 jobs). Many foreign companies are still just looking, though. The IDB is encouraging them to set up shop in Northern Ireland in anticipation of Europe's 1992 trade reforms.
Meanwhile, efforts are afoot to guarantee that a fair share of new jobs goes to Catholics, who long have been victims of discrimination. A bill wending its way through the House of Commons creates a tribunal to monitor hiring practices in Northern Ireland. It will have the power to set affirmative-action goals for foot-dragging companies and to require employers to establish training programs for Catholics. Proposed sanctions include the power to withhold government contracts and subsidies from companies that don't comply, as well as, in some cases, criminal fines.
Another problem to be addressed is the de facto discrimination brought about by segregated neighborhoods. Many Catholics feel uneasy venturing into Protestant areas for jobs. Marks and Spencer, the large retailer, is looking into special transportation to bring Catholic employees to a new facility outside Belfast. Perhaps this will be a model for other employers.
It's to be hoped that more American companies will consider expansion into Ulster. Rep. Brian Donnelly (D) of Massachusetts has introduced a bill in Congress that would give tax breaks to US corporations that locate in areas of Northern Ireland with high unemployment, provided they comply with fair-employment standards.
For US companies, this may be a chance to do well while doing good.