Business

Religious imbalance at Shorts jeopardised support from the US

Gail Bell delves into the newly released historical government papers to look at business issues

THE percentage of Catholics in the Northern Ireland workforce may have risen for the 12th successive year, according to the latest Equality Commission report.

But in 1986 the religious imbalance at Short Brothers was causing major headaches at Stormont - and even threatened to ground support from the United States.

A stream of confidential correspondence flowed between Belfast officials and high-ranking American politicians over fair employment legislation in relation to the workforce at the Belfast aircraft factory and has now been revealed in secret government files released under the 20-year rule.

Extensive folders - entitled 'Fair Employment' and 'Short Bros PLC West Belfast Facility' - show the extent of the influence of the US in ensuring fair employment practice was properly executed at the company which employed an overwhelming majority Protestant workforce in 1986.

Against a background of protests to the Anglo-Irish Agreement and unemployment which stood at 129,432 in July that year - representing a whopping 19 per cent of the working population and the highest of all UK regions - it was not exactly a smooth flight for the aircraft manufacturers.

Short Brothers was one of a number of Northern Ireland companies investigated in relation to fair employment practices and had agreed to implement an 'Affirmative Action' programme to be monitored by the FEA (Fair Employment Agency).

Prior to the programme, the agency had concluded that the percentage of Catholics employed by Shorts "did not reflect that in the population as a whole".

In a confidential letter from Department of Economic Development to the Department of Finance and Personnel at Parliament Buildings, the seriousness of the situation was spelled out and assurances given that both Shorts and the FEA were "anxious to identify the causes of the gap" between recruitment figures and the level of applications from Catholics.

"As you will appreciate, there is considerable political interest in what might be alleged to be a failure to afford equality of opportunity by a government sponsored company, not least by the United States," Mr Lewis Nesbitt wrote, while asking for "urgent approval" for funding of up to £25,000 for independent analysis of the figures.

Individual academics were also put forward to carry out the exercise, but the FEA believed they might not have the "necessary standing" for such an investigation, which was deemed "likely to be subject to critical analysis, especially in the United States".

The fears, it seems, were well-founded, with pressure coming from both Harrison J Goldin, Comptroller of the City of New York, and Paul Simon, US senator.

"I share your concern that although there has been some progress in employment of Catholics at Short Brothers in apprentice-ship positions, the level of Catholic new-starts for other positions actually fell, despite a rise in Catholic applications," Mr Simon stated in a blunt letter to the under-secretary at the DED.

Meanwhile, Mr Goldin - who was described as "unflagging" in his efforts to promote the MacBride Principles for US companies doing business in the north - commended the FEA's action in a letter to Dr Rhodes Boyson MP, then Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office.

He added that he hoped Shorts management would now "recognise that the time for change has come".

Following the Affirmative Action Programme, changes implemented by Shorts included more objective recruitment procedures, greater contact with Catholic schools and the development of the West Belfast facility at Dunmurry - a move bitterly opposed by unions.

Terry Carlin of the NIC ICTU wrote to Shorts's management at the time, stating he was "convinced" that dividing Shorts into separate companies would make it easier to eventually privatise the company. Shorts was acquired three years later in 1989 by Bombardier Aerospace.

The latest Fair Employment Monitoring Report by the Equality Commission shows the company currently employs 3,931 Protestants (82 per cent) and 827 Catholics (17.4 per cent) out of 4,993 employees.

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