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Northern Ireland, workplace equality monitoring officers have been forced to take bizarre steps to square the circle of outdated equality monitoring recording.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In this political environment, Roy found that the outdated directive used to record the religious community of employees has forced equality monitoring officials to carry out actions such as using a Google Maps search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?

Imagine festival 202

Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger.

While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.