Monday 13 June 2005


Our boss was over from head office the other day, as he sometimes is. He's a nice guy, really, and clearly didn't like having to do what he did — something he never has to do to most of his employees over on the mainland, but is required by law to do to us lot in the Northern Irish branch. All companies with Northern Irish offices are obliged to keep a database of their employees' "perceived religion", and our database hasn't been updated in a while, so our boss asked us all to drop him an email to let him know.

Most companies in the UK record their employees' race and gender these days, but the information's voluntary: you may choose not to tick any of the boxes. Not in Northern Ireland. Here, you have the "right" not to tick either box, but the government will then use the other method of finding out, which involves checking what school you went to, what they know about your parents, your membership of political organisations, etc. In Great Britain, when your job application asks you whether you're black or white, you have a choice about whether the government records the information. In Northern Ireland, when your application form asks you whether you're Protestant or Catholic, you have a choice about whether to have a say in the information the government will record, but not in whether they record it. I realise there used to be some companies here that were completely closed shops, but there had to be a better way of fixing that problem than gross trampling of civil rights, didn't there?

This being Northern Ireland, there are only two boxes to tick, and they perniciously ask for your "perceived" religion. What this means is that they don't want you getting clever and claiming to be an atheist, even if you really are an atheist. As far as the government are concerned, everyone here slots into one of the boxes, and everyone knows which box they're in. They want you to tell them which religion you're a part of, and that has nothing to do with your religion.

My Muslim colleague reckons she must be a Protestant because she lives in Lisburn.

I emailed my boss:

I'm a half-Jewish half-Anglican English atheist. I believe this makes me part of the "Protestant community" for some reason.

This enforced group identity is increasing resentment — just as Sinn Fein want it to — but don't expect Whitehall to notice.

Under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, it is illegal for a company to discriminate against a prospective employee if their conviction is considered spent, and ex-cons have the right to keep their conviction secret. So, if you're a convicted multiple rapist, you have the right not to tell your employers, but, if you're married to a Protestant, you don't.

All in the cause of freedom, apparently.


Rob points out that I'm wrong about multiple rapists. For burglars, thieves, pickpockets, muggers, loiterers, and guttersnipes, however, the point still stands.

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