Analysing the Peace Monitoring Report, 1: socio-economic indicators

by Philip Ferguson

“On every indicator of deprivation the proportion of Catholics affected is higher than the proportion of Protestants.”  For instance, less than one in six Protestants (16%) live in low-income households, while over one in four Catholics (26%) are in such households.  If this was taken as symptomatic of socio-economic conditions and indicators then the conclusion might be that nothing much has changed in the six counties since the days of the one-party Orange state and systematic, institutionalised discrimination against the Catholic section of the population.

However, a host of other statistics indicate that while much of the Catholic working class remains deprived, there has been a substantial growth, in both numerical and wealth terms, of the Catholic middle class and burgeoning capitalists.  The Protestant section of the working class has lost much of its privileged position as not only the Orange state but also industries such as engineering and shipbuilding are largely gone.  Sectarian privilege has basically been replaced, at the economic level, by the forms of class exploitation and privilege that are the standard products of the ‘normal’ operations of capitalism.  At the same time, new forms of institutionalised sectarianism have emerged – or, more accurately – been put in place.  These have been explored elsewhere on this blog and I’ll return to them in a later article on the Peace Monitoring Report; in this present piece, however, I’m only looking at socio-economic conditions and indicators and making a few points about the political significance of these.

Changing employment and pay patterns – the rise of Catholic and female workforce

One of the most striking indications of the end of the Orange state and its specific forms of sectarian privilege is the fact that the median Catholic wage (£9.44 per hour) is now higher than the median Protestant wage (£9.11 per hour).  Moreover, this gap could well increase.  For instance, half the positions in the public service in the six counties are now held by Catholics and they are increasingly moving into managerial roles as Catholics outperform Protestants in every level of the school system and substantially outnumber Protestants in enrolments in higher education – 60% of higher education enrolments are now Catholic.  In 2010/1121,380 Catholics enrolled in higher education in the six counties, compared to only 14,740 – this is a clear trend which began over a decade ago and shows no sign of stopping.

The general make-up of the workforce has been changing dramatically too.  From 1990-2010 working-age Catholics increased by 30% – 114,000 – while the number of Protestants of working age only rose a meagre 4%.  Catholics under 35 now outnumber Protestants, so a workforce in which Protestants still outnumbered Catholics 60/40 in 2000 is now almost numerically even.  In both the public and private sector Catholics and Protestants are employed pretty much in the same ratio as their percentage of the overall population.  The one striking exception to this is the Police Service (more about that in a future piece).

Even when unemployment grew after 2008, Protestant employment fell slightly more (3.5%) than Catholic employment (3.2%).  Even then, a chunk of the fall in Catholic employment has been because of the growth of youth unemployment; since the Catholic population is substantially more youthful than the Protestant population, it was hit more by the rise of youth unemployment.  Old-style discrimination simply was not a factor.

Another important change in paid employment is the increase in women in the workforce.  Women now make up a substantial majority of public sector workers.  In the past, recessions tended to mean women being driven out of the workforce, but this has not really been the case anywhere in the West since the 1980s and the six counties is no exception.  For instance, the fall in male full-time employment in 2009 was eight times greater than the fall in female full-time employment.

Gender differences in pay have also been narrower in the six counties than in Britain since 2002.  In the “United Kingdom” overall, which in statistics includes the six counties of course, women only get 80.5% the pay of men – in the six counties they receive nearly 92% of the pay of men.  This would also mean that in Britain (ie not counting the six counties) women would receive less that 80.5% of men’s pay.  In fact, in the six counties the median pay of women in full-time employment is higher than men’s and the same is true in part-time work.  (Because there are still a lot more men in full-time employment, the median income of men in paid work overall is still 8 percentage points higher than women’s.)

Just as Catholics are increasingly better-educated, and thus more likely to be climbing the employment ladder, than Protestants, the same is true for women in relation to men in the six counties.  Girls consistently out-perform boys and female university enrolment in the six counties is consistently higher than male.  (Part of this may be that family ties/duties still disproportionately weigh on women and so they are more likely to enrol in local universities than British ones, but the trend towards higher educational participation rates for women is a general and consistent upward curve.)

Given the changes in the workforce in relation to women and Catholics, it’s probably not surprising that the Equality Commission in 2010 declared, “In broad terms, the overall composition of the monitored workforce continues to become more female and more Roman Catholic over time.”

Education – the rise of Catholics and girls; the centrality of class

I’ve already mentioned the substantial rise of Catholic and female participation in higher education and how these have affected employment and the changing workforce, especially the upwardly mobile section of it.  However, the Peace Monitoring Report also notes that the most significant gaps are not between girls and boys but between Catholic and Protestant students and between grammar and non-grammar school students.  For instance, 92.4% of grammar students achieve seven or more GCSEs while only 40.6% of non-grammar school students do, while a socially-disadvantaged student in a Catholic-maintained school is twice as likely to make it to university as a similar Protestant working class student.  Even a poor, rural Catholic schoolgirl will outperform a better-off, rural Protestant schoolboy.  A higher percentage of Protestant boys (49%) now leave school without five good GCSEs than Catholic boys (46%).

At the same time, the six counties has lower rates of educational achievement than Britain.  For instance, 20% of the population have no educational qualifications, compared to only 10% of the population of England, Scotland and Wales.  The six counties is one of the poorest of the 12 regions that make up the formal ‘UK’ state (there are four poorer regions).  Wages seem to be stuck at just under 90% of the UK average, which would mean they are even less that figure in terms of Britain itself.  In the six counties claimants make up a higher percentage of the population than in 10 of the other 11 regions of the ‘UK’.  (One exception to the generally poorer state of the six counties is youth unemployment.  It’s actually somewhat lower there than in the ‘UK’ as a whole, and markedly lower than it is in Wales.)

Life expectancy – the centrality of class

In the six counties, life expectancy is just a few months less, for both men and women, than the ‘UK’ average.  The main gap is within the six counties.  Travelling along the Metro #8 bus route in Belfast, you’ll come to the Donegal Square area where life expectancy is only 71 for men and 77 for women; by the time you get to the well-to-do Catholic Malone Road it’s 79 for men and 82 for women and reaching leafy prosperous Protestant Finaghy it’s 80 for men and 83 for women.

Some conclusions

Overall, it appears that while there have been dramatic socio-economic changes within the six counties it remains something of a socio-economic backwater within the ‘United Kingdom’ state.  This indicates that the six counties continues to exist in an essentially colonial relationship with Britain, albeit one which the British or UK state underwrites because the alternative – getting out of the six counties – remains unthinkable for a combination of broader political and economic reasons.  (This isn’t the place to go into these, but the blog will explore them further down the track.)

While the Protestant working class has lost the bulk of its privileged position over the past several decades, its consciousness lags far behind.  Moreover, becoming poorer doesn’t necessarily make the once-privileged more radical.  They can get angry but the anger can easily be directed against the same people as in the past – Catholic workers.  However, the fact that the material privileges of Protestant workers are largely gone at least opens up more potential space for the promotion of a broader working class politics – socialist-republicanism – in place of the communalist politics of the sectarian divide.

(For my initial comments on the Report, see here.  For a broader overview of the social/economic/political changes in the six counties, read Liam O Ruairc’s article, here.)



Posted on April 13, 2012, in 21st century republicanism and socialism, Economy and workers' resistance, Irish politics today, Political education and theory, Social conditions. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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