Over recent decades Northern Ireland’s labour market has been characterised by inequality, largely as a result of its place within a religiously divided society. One manifestation of this division has been a higher average employment rate among the Protestant population relative to the Roman Catholic population. Many explanations were offered for this disparity, the most contentious of which was religious discrimination (see Smith and Chambers, 1991). Concurrent with legislation enacted to address such discrimination, Northern Ireland underwent much economic and social transformation. These events, it has been argued, made a joint contribution to reducing the religion-employment disparity (see Shuttleworth and Osborne, 2004) – but it is not clear whether this remains the case, or whether other inequalities have arisen (or displaced past inequalities). Indeed, it is much less clear whether inequalities within religious groupings (e.g. between Protestant denominations) have developed over time and whether these could be of greater significance than those between the two main communities.
The broad aim of this research is to identify, quantify, and explain various inequalities in the Northern Ireland labour market. Firstly, it will provide a descriptive account of labour market and demographic change between 1991 and 2011, a period which roughly charts the emergence of the peace process to the present day. Secondly, it will update Northern Ireland’s academic literature concerning employment inequalities according to religious affiliation, and in particular assess the viability of discrimination as a contemporary contributory factor. Thirdly, and finally, it will examine two related aspects of the wider inequalities debate: (1) the influence of childhood circumstances (such as growing up in a one-parent household or in a particular neighbourhood) on adult labour market fortunes, and (2) intergenerational correlations (such as health correlates between parents and their children) of relevance to how economic success transmits across generations of families.