‘Fair employment’ campaign for Catholics alarmed British in 1985

Concern expressed privately in NI office over failure to tackle discrimination

 Seán MacBride:  his list of “principles” included provision for affirmative action in the workplace to tackle Catholic under-representation.  Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Seán MacBride: his list of “principles” included provision for affirmative action in the workplace to tackle Catholic under-representation. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh


British government concern at the success of an Irish-American campaign to have the “MacBride principles” on fair employment in Northern Ireland adopted by US companies is revealed in declassified State papers.

In their attempts to counter the escalating campaign, Northern Ireland officials were forced to concede privately that much more needed to be done to counter anti-Catholic discrimination in the North.

The MacBride principles, drawn up by former Irish foreign minister and Nobel prizewinner Seán MacBride, included provision for affirmative action in the workplace to tackle Catholic under-representation, protection for minority employees at work and “the banning of provocative religious and political emblems”.

In a memo to officials headed “Disinvestment from the USA”, dated January 28th, 1985, JM Lyon of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) noted: “The Irish National Caucus (INC) in the USA are seeking to persuade American companies to withdraw from their investments in NI.

“This is potentially extremely damaging and we are making every effort to thwart them.”

He noted that the INC was close to Noraid in the US. Lyon reported that the INC was seeking to exploit the MacBride Principles in two ways: “First, they had promoted a Bill in New York City Council which would compel the city’s pension funds to withdraw investments from any company in NI which did not implement the principles.”


The Bill had attracted some support, although Mayor Koch had delayed its progress. It was, however, possible that New York city council would hold public hearings on the issue.

Second, the Sisters of St Joseph of Peace in the US were conducting a campaign to encourage shareholders in US companies operating in Northern Ireland to oblige their companies to enforce the principles. Lyon concluded: “The threat to American companies in NI is real. There are at present 12, all of which may be vulnerable.”

These included Gallahers, Ford, Dupont and General Motors. There was a tangible threat to companies thinking of investing in NI, he noted.

Damning critique

As the US campaign on fair employment in the North escalated, the NIO received a damning critique of its fair employment policies by one of its own officials.

On February 11th, 1985, AJ Merifield disputed claims by his colleagues that the government’s fair employment legislation and the work of its Fair Employment Agency (FEA) had “acted effectively to counter discrimination”. He went on: “This may be true in general terms but I believe the MacBride principles are aimed at a more serious structural problem and one in which we have made only limited progress during Direct Rule . . .”

Merifield pointed out “virtually no change has taken place in the relative employment patterns by religious affiliation since 1971”. Among other things, Catholics were found to be under-represented in the manufacturing sector while Protestants continued to dominate the most prestigious and strategic industries.

Merifield told his colleagues that, in 1983, 36 per cent of economically active Catholic males were unemployed, compared with 14 per cent of their Protestant counterparts, adding: “We can argue that fair employment legislation has its part to play, but its impact on the immediate position of Catholic jobs is slow” while they could not claim too much for the FEA legislation.

Finally the NIO was later faced with the publication by comptroller Harold Goldwin of New York council of a report on employment patterns in Northern Ireland, which David Fell of the department of commerce at Stormont condemned as “selective, unbalanced and simplistic” in a March 13th, 1985, memo.