How we’ve reduced our identity to a Google Maps search

A Queen’s University student discovered some alarming home truths when he spent months investigating our addiction to the use of the blanket terms Protestant and Roman Catholic as a catch-all to describe the population of Northern Ireland.

Roy Fisher, a print-maker and market trader who carried out the research for his Masters thesis, found that an increasing minority of employees who describe themselves as being of neither religion are still determined as being of one of those faiths due to Equality Legislation. And that some alarming methods are used along the way to make very employee fit into two boxes in an increasingly secular Northern Ireland.

For the benefit of readers further afield: for historically good reason employers in Northern Ireland are required to record the religion, known as religious community, of their employees to help flag up any inequality.

In order to make these legislation-enshrined tags work in a time when attitudes to religion have changed and when 11% (Census 2011) of residents were not born in Northern Ireland, workplace equality monitoring officers have been forced to take bizarre steps to square the circle of outdated equality monitoring recording.

For the benefit, again, of guest readers, the voter turnout at the last Assembly election was 54.9%. Given that 11.7% of votes cast went to ‘other’ parties – Alliance, Greens and People before Profit – the proportion of the eligible electorate who voted for Unionist or Nationalist parties is lower than 50%.

In this political environment, Roy found that the outdated directive used to record the religious community of employees has forced equality monitoring officials to carry out actions such as using a Google Maps search to look for flags in a person’s home area, turning a blind eye to overseas-born workers ticking the religion box and having their identity conflated with irrelevant local labels, and using a 29-year-old reference book to assign a person’s religion based on a stated school.

His research looking at how monitoring officers determine a person’s religion when the ‘neither’ option is chosen also considers how the system works in a society where – despite the slowly-changing disparity between political representation and the actual population – many people still live well outside the labels used to record religion in 2017.

His thesis also notes the “great work” of equality monitoring officers in recognising the non-binary nature of identity for many people in Northern Ireland today is in stark contrast to a “lack of political leadership on the issue”. He also underlines that those who chose neither on employment forms are a group in Northern Ireland without fair rights, who suffer officials fishing in their past and personal life to apply one of the religious labels and who may even be facing this in breach of European rules which do not allow a religious identity to be forced upon an individual (as per Article 3 of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities).

Roy, interviewed for this piece, explained: “European rights protect minorities from having their identity conflated with one they do not belong to. The High Commissioner on National Minorities specifically states that it is prohibited to assimilate citizens to groups against their will. It is hard to understand why this has not been enforced in Northern Ireland.”

To pause for a look at the very, very basics of equality monitoring – a strange practice most in Northern Ireland now barely notice as it is passes – a job applicant aiming for a job in any company over 11 employees will be required to state their religion as Protestant, Roman Catholic or neither. When neither is chosen an equality monitoring officer in the company will use a person’s school to guess (even though our schools are often of mixed religion) or, failing that, search into a bizarre list of personal information including where the person lives, their name and even the religion of the people who provided references until they can make a supposed determination.

One obvious issue: schools in Northern Ireland are increasingly complex (for example: there are schools perceived to ‘belong’ to one community but do not have a majority of that faith), making a 29-year-old reference book used by some (called the Classification of Schools  for Monitoring Purposes) farcical.

Similarly, a person living in an area with, say, a Union Flag flying does not mean the religion of the applicant can be assumed to be Protestant, while the large number of applicants born overseas may well have no strong view on local politics but their selection of a religion box means they will be assumed by those reading statistics to belong to a political view in a lazy and non-representative way (for a variation on the same theme see here).

Which explains why Roy even learned of a HR officer who had refused to take part in carrying out any further equality monitoring due to the depth of the flaws in the system.

“When it comes to equality monitoring, a person who self-identifies as Protestant or Catholic, even if they have just arrived in Northern Ireland, will be counted as such. An Italian nurse working in Northern Ireland would be likely, if asked, to label themselves as Catholic and is then monitored as such. Generally, those from outside Northern Ireland who state neither are recorded as non-determined, but where a monitoring officer can make a determination of that person who states they are neither they are strongly advised to do so using the residuary method of stereotypical clues such as their name or address.”

Roy continued by adding that one simple example could expose the flaw in assuming religion based on a geographical area: “Gerry Kelly’s recent Westminster election material presented the percentages for religious background, and then relabeled these same statistics to claim the numbers of Nationalists and Unionists in North Belfast. Even aside the multiple issues with this, such as the matter of those born outside Northern Ireland, research (Life and Times Survey) has shown that when people who describe themselves as – say – Nationalist are asked if they are strongly Nationalist that figure reduces to single figures.” 

He raised the issue of modern Northern Ireland forcing an identity upon residents with impunity – citing that research has found that when people had voiced concern that their childhood primary school does not represent their current assumed community they were told it could not be changed – and raised how equality monitoring supposes that a person cannot change their religion in their lifetime in this way.

A main failing, however, also exists in the issue of using terms like Protestant and Catholic for people to self-describe themselves despite perhaps having no beliefs, not attending a place of worship except for weddings etc and having no real connection with the faith aside from their parents’ choice of their school many years before.

Therefore, a person ticking Catholic on an employment form tells us very little about their faith or community let alone being of value when we inevitably go on to assume the person’s political views.

Life and Times surveying shows that although 83% of people state they belong to a religion, just 32% of them attend church every week, 53% attend every month and 30% attend less frequently than once a month. 16% of people who said they belong to a religion said they never attend.

Some further detail from Roy: “The 2015 survey found 33% of its sample had a Unionist identity, 25% had a Nationalist identity, while the largest cohort, 40% of the sample, said they were neither Unionist nor Nationalist. Even when people self-identified as Unionist or Nationalist, their strength of identity differed; 16% of these Unionists and Nationalists said their corresponding identity was very strong, 44% said it was fairly strong, while 39% said it was not very strong. These statistics show that just 9% of the total survey sample consider themselves to be very strong Unionists or Nationalists so – as stated earlier – we are looking at single figures.”

However, equality monitoring isn’t the only process to fall behind. Officials computing the Census have also seen farce creep into their approach due to the terms used when asking about a person’s religion.

Roy explained: “Those who refuse to answer (6.75%) have their religion imputed, or estimated, using a Canadian-made computer system. But the post-Census evaluation found that only 73% of these assumptions were accurate, surely a microcosm of the huge errors we make in how we record such information in 2017.
“There are further problems with the Census in that community background may be assumed based on the person’s nationality if their home country has a dominant faith. While the Protestant community background grouping is actually a conflation of ‘Protestant and other Christian (including Christian related)’, meaning the inclusion of a long, long list of faiths including Orthodox Christians and those who consider their background as mixed Protestant and Catholic, even interdenominational too. This means a Romanian person who is of Eastern Orthodox faith would be recorded within this group, and then due to a common media shorthand be reported to be part of the Protestant community.”

The effect of our processes becoming out of step with modern Northern Ireland can also be seen in the continued habit of broadcast media – and not just visiting media, including no less than Channel 4 News – lacking the time, effort or will to do better than referring to “both communities” in Northern Ireland.

“When the media talk about both communities as catch-all, we ignore the people who do not belong to either community. If you give people a third option of Unionist, Nationalist or neither, the largest group will be neither. And bear in mind that more people chose not to vote than chose to vote Unionist or Nationalist.”

Roy has contacted BBC Northern Ireland about the use of the both communities term and said the phrase was defended by the BBC as reflecting voting here. He also underlined that the journalistic habit sits alongside the practice of giving an entire housing area a political identity: for example, a radio debate about housing described an area as Nationalist and Catholic despite the fact that children, non-voters, non-church attendees, those from overseas and those of neither political view will make up an extremely large section of the population in the area.

He went on to point out the danger of allowing such assumptions to occur: “Take the example of a news story saying a dispute has arisen because Loyalist flags have spread from a one area into a wider, so-called ‘mixed’, area. The media coverage assumes that it was perfectly acceptable for those in the original area to be forced to live with a Loyalist flag outside their door in the first place, however the statistics do not show that this support can be assumed.”


It would be easy to accept our approach to recording identity in Northern Ireland as a necessary evil, however Roy convincingly argues that the result is damaging to our entire community.

“When we allow figures to so wrongly record who we are today, we allow those who profit from the labels to misrepresent information, be it Gerry Kelly presenting information which makes Polish people in Glengormley appear to be Nationalists, be it the Orange Order implying support from those recorded as Protestant, or the attitude that it is OK for a person to live under flags because they are in a supposed certain type of area.
“An overriding problem is that identity isn’t seen as a process, a person is not allowed to change their primary school-derived identity during their life and if they do not fit into one of two boxes their identity and privacy is treated with contempt. After all, comparatively-speaking the group in Northern Ireland with the fewest actual protecting rights are those in the ‘other’ category as they are sparsely recognised in legislation.”

So engrained is this habit in Northern Ireland that Roy was able to reveal an elephant in the room example that slipped the public view: “When the PSNI announced they would bring in consultants to look at under-represented groups in the police the focus in the media was on Catholics primarily, with some mention of ethnic minorities, people with a disability and LGBT people. However, compared to the wider population the most under-represented group within the PSNI are people who are neither Protestant nor Catholic. This is not being addressed. Instead, those who are non-determined – currently 7.8% of the total monitored workforce – are simply lifted out of the figures to make the remaining two boxes add up to 100%.
“Again, the large number of people who do not fit into our neat boxes of identity in Northern Ireland are ignored, misrepresented and overlooked as it simply suits many in the media or politics to do so. Especially in the case of the last category: turkeys, to be very blunt, do not vote for Christmas.”

My own view? To understand identity in Northern Ireland it seems that a first step would be to stop pretending that we already do so and to admit that, in truth, we haven’t really wanted to open that Pandora’s box in the first place. The schools we chose for our children and areas we chose to live in are indicators of participation in the structures generally available – not active agreement with the choices to hand.

The next step would be this: to start to record religion and identity as a sliding scale with more depth, fewer assumptions and recognising that the religion chosen for a person by their parents neither indicates a religion today or any political view.

While it has become clear that the failure to address the core issues of culture, identity and the past has meant that Stormont itself is built on sand until such factors are addressed, we could better inform these debates by accurately and properly recording the people who make up Northern Ireland in the first place. After all, most people who can do so don’t vote Unionist or Nationalist, 40% do not use those labels when asked, most do not attend a church regularly and very very few were happy to be described as strongly Unionist or strongly Nationalist when surveyed. And yet we perform procedural contortions to make our identity look neat and tidy.

There must be a better way.

That is unless – of course – our politicians are wary of the information a full picture would uncover.

What, we could wonder, do they possibly have to lose?


  • file

    Very interesting stuff. But we need another aggrieved minority like a hole in the head. Mabe they will start demanding civil rights or a Bad Language Act! A few points: I would dispute Alliance (unionist) and People Before Profit (nationalist) being classified as ‘other’. Also interesting that this is a QUB student. When QUB were manipulating their fair employment figures to make them look better, they were allowed to include only locally born people in their breakdown. Given that a large percentage of the academic staff are (rejects) from England, this dispensation had a noticeable skewing effect on the figures.

  • Newton Emerson

    This is good point worth exploring – but it’s a mistake to pin the blame on recruitment equality monitoring.
    What’s being measured there is not applicants’ background but the employer’s perception of it.
    That perception can be right or wrong – doesn’t matter. Monitoring is only trying to establish if employers are discriminating on that basis. The requirement to assess a background if none is specified was included to stop employers consciously or subconsciously gaming their numbers.
    It’s a good system – it’s worked, in terms of its objective. That’s not worth sacrificing for better statistics on a totally different metric.

  • woodkerne

    It is an irony and indeed contradiction of Community Relations policy and related anti-discrimination conventions that official concern to ensure fairness in employment (and elsewhere) has the effect of reinforcing sectarian binarism, in this way institutionalising sectarian definition as the constitutive norm. Worse, the definitional authority of prodtaig-ism both contributes to a constant underestimate of the actual level of nonsectarian identification already in existence as well as occluding the visibility and level of pluralist and secular culture, diverse practices and beliefs in local society in future.

  • Teddybear

    What % of ‘Others’ are employers obliged to employ?

    I am asking as some of my Hindu and Muslim friends in IT who live here who are from India originally, have inexplicably failed to be interviewed for jobs they’ve applied for despite being well qualified.

  • file

    I would think ‘none’ is the answer, as ‘others’ do not exist in fair employment legislation.

  • Teddybear

    A logical but despicable outcome of a law that only recognise RC & Protestantism.

  • Roy Fisher

    I agree that equality monitoring practices have been successful. The thesis explains the success more fully, but also criticises the concretising of Protestant & Catholic communities as separate (remember T:BUC?). Also, I think the Residuary Method needs to be reconsidered, as some employees show great concern at being labelled wrongly, and sectarian perceptions are at odds with the European legislation which gives primacy to self-identity. It is also becoming more difficult to apply the Residuary Method because less employers ask for schooling history or sports played, and less applicants use clerics as referees. The monitoring officers also find making a determination based on a name or address difficult.

    The census presents the bigger problem when it comes to describing groups and defining society. Unlike the census, monitoring officers deal with individual employees so, for example, a Polish employee will not have a Catholic identity imputed nor will a Romanian Orthodox Christian be conflated with Protestants. The census asks atheists for their childhood church, and then that background identity (or imputation where no answer is given) sees them counted by parental identity (or assumed background). This is supposedly done to help track society to assist with equality monitoring, but the groups are becoming less comparable as society diversifies. The use of the census background statistics are also a problem, they are the “key statistics on religion” according to the NI Assembly, and are presented in the media to show the numbers of current Protestants and Catholics.

  • I am a proud atheist – proud because it wasn’t my default position, it required years of thought and self-analysis to acquire that identity.

    So, if by virtue of where I was born, I am presumed to be of a certain religious identity (hmm, seems to be a theme currently), am I aggrieved? Of course I am!

    There already is an aggreived minority in NI, but as we prefer words to weapons, and don’t help the major parties in their sectarian carve up, we continue to be systematically discriminated against.

  • Reader

    file: Given that a large percentage of the academic staff are (rejects) from England, this dispensation had a noticeable skewing effect on the figures.
    Given that those English you are complaining about are mostly atheists, and in any case certainly not proper huns, what are you complaining about?

  • file

    Not complaining, just stating that a large swathe of English people – atheist or not – actually has a noticeable effect on the ethos and atmosphere in the institution, and that pretending they do not exist so that QUB can claim they have something like 55%-45% religious equality in their workforce is at best a three card trick and at worst an outright lie.

  • Roy Fisher

    For the thesis I looked at the Equality Commission’s statistics for all large organisations (251 or more employees). I worked from the 2014 Monitoring Returns (2015 has since been published), it shows the number of Protestants, Catholics and non-determined employees, and then the square bracket percentages for Protestants and Catholics only (with the non-determined removed). This is the same for every organisation.

    The 2014 statistics for Queen’s were 1569 Protestants, 1724 Catholics, and 810 non-determined. The square brackets showed 47.6% Protestant and 52.4% Catholic. In the thesis I pointed out that when square bracket percentages are used in isolation they disguise the proportion of the workforce which is not Protestant or Catholic (19.7% in the case of Queen’s). It is the Equality Commission doing this for all organisations, and not Queen’s specifically. I found the square brackets percentages for large companies can represent from as little as 25% of the workforce, to as much as 100%.

    I’m not aware of any time Queen’s presented NI only religion statistics, but would be interested if you could point me to it.

  • Reader

    But the religious equality measurement is meant to count huns and taigs, not English and Spanish. Hence the long argument above that both local and immigrant ‘others’ shouldn’t be bundled into our cattle pens for the counting.
    Anyway, aren’t universities meant *not* to be parochial?

  • file

    I worked there at the time – around 15 years ago or more – and in staff updates they were always going on about how close they were getting to a catholic/protestant workforce breakdown that was reflective of wider society. Conveniently ignoring that, like the 810 non-determined you quote above, the workforce not born locally were predominantly Protestant, unionist and English in outlook.

  • file

    Not our ones! All they care about is if they are better than each other, in this provincial backwater. Both are mediocre, one less so.

  • file

    Could they not just measure the distance between their eyes?

  • file

    How exactly have you been discriminated against? Have you been refused housing because of your non-belief in God? Has a lack of faith led to you being overlooked for employment (except as a pope, or something)? Have you been beaten up on your way home by marauding gangs of Jesus-heads? Have you been made sit at the back of the happy-clappy bus?

  • Systematic discrimination is where the state discriminates in small but cumulative ways. Everything from the Christian monopoly on the RE syllabus and compulsory acts of daily Christian worship in schools, to prayers on the agenda of council meetings and MLAs feeling unable to express their lack of religiosity while their Christian colleagues freely speak of them – BBC found seven MLAs in the 2015 assembly without a religious faith, and only one, Anna Lo, was willing to speak out. Note Anna did not stand for re-election.

    We’re not talking about getting a kicking, we’re talking about a system of oppression. It’s not North Korea, but it is unfair and are breaches of human rights.

  • file

    Ach get over yourself. What do you expect to be on a religion syllabus, paganism? And anyway, have you seen a religion syllabus lately? Islam, Judaism, Buddhism all get a mention. And saying a prayer at the start of the day has been proven to do you no harm, but the schools i know only really have assembly one day a week and no one calls them out for ‘breaking the law’. The MLAs having a pause for prayers I find a bit silly, but they do not actually say anything out loud, so the atheists can spend the time reflecting on a meaningless universe and the arbitrary nature of their own existence if they want to. It is nothing like the systematic discrimination that has left us with superb roads servicing Carrickfergus, Larne, Bangor and all known Protestant towns while it only takes one tractor to snarl up the main route from Taig-ridden Derry to Belfast. This is a Christian country and has Christian traditions. When in Rome, you know? Breaches of human rights? The only human right involved is the seemingly never-ending ‘right’ in the First World to complain about everything and to think that, only do you have a ‘right’ to be offended, but that action must be taken to prevent you being offended. I do not like soccer. Am I systematically discriminated against because soccer is always the major sports story in the media? No, and I just have to cope with living in a soccer-centric society. It is not that hard, really.

  • Apologies, I confused you for a serious commentator who would not resort to the logical fallacy of relative privation. I’ll allow you to return under your bridge now.

  • file

    Apology accepted. I am serious though. You have what are termed first world problems, which are in reality not problems at all.

  • babyface finlayson

    What percentage of the non locally born workforce were Protestant unionist and English in outlook according to your data?

  • file

    all of them. And I do not have data, I have memories.

  • babyface finlayson

    You said predominantly!
    Now you say they were all not only protestant but also unionist and also English.
    Evidence would be helpful.

  • file

    why? All I am saying is that QUB when reporting to the staff about how well they were doing in meeting targets for proportional representation of Protestants and Catholics in the workforce excluded those born outside Northern Ireland. In my experience there, the majority of the academic staff were born outside Northern Ireland, were English, Welsh, Scottish, and their contribution to the atmosphere and ethos of QUB was in line with the outlook of the local-born Protestant staff. Therefore the overall ethos and outlook of the institution was unionist, Protestant, royalist and circket-loving. They did not even know what hurling was when I mentioned it to them. So … no matter what massaged local figures they came up with for breakdown by religion, we Catholics who worked there knew what type of organisation we were working for. I am not saying it was a bad thing, just that their figures were completely meaningless as they ignored most of the workforce. And anyway, if everyone had to provide evidence every time they opened their mouths, there would be a lot more awkward silences.

  • babyface finlayson

    If that was your experience that is fair enough. But we have no way of knowing if it is accurate or not.
    Actual figures are always helpful.

  • Cagey Feck

    Aye you’re right. The struggle for a secular society governed by laws chosen by the people, complete waste of time. Equality? No way, this is a Christian country! Live here and be ruled by the LORD lest ye perish etc etc.