Catholics on march in Northern Ireland as Protestants leave

An exodus of some of the brightest young Protestants is contributing to an extraordinary process of social change in Northern Ireland, according to an academic study.

It indicates that emphasis on the troubles has masked a generation of profound change that has dramatically reduced the traditional perception of Protestant advantage over Catholics, who are now over-represented in areas such as health and education.

The study's conclusions point to a remarkable transformation since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which was fuelled by a Catholic sense of disadvantage in securing jobs and promotion.

One of the editors of the new study, Professor Bob Osborne, said: "It is unusual to find such a rate of social change within a generation. It is quite dramatic. In many areas Catholics have caught up with or surpassed Protestants, and there is no longer consistent Catholic relative disadvantage to the same degree as in the 1970s and 1980s."

The brain drain, which has been going on for decades, refers to the trend for many Protestant teenagers to go to universities in England and Scotland and find jobs there instead of returning home. The pattern has even generated its own facetious acronym - NIPPLES - which stands for Northern Ireland Protestant Professionals Living in England and Scotland.

Partly due to this exodus, Catholics now make up around 60 per cent of undergraduates at Northern Ireland's two universities, with the proportion of Catholic graduates and those taking more of the desirable jobs steadily rising.

According to the professor, "most of the Protestants employed in the public sector are in the upper age groups and most of those coming in are younger Catholics. Once the older ones reach retirement age, the public sector workforce will become predominantly Catholic."

The overall picture has led Catholics to indicate in opinion polls that they are much less worried about the discrimination issue that previously generated many complaints. Conversely, Protestants indicate they are more concerned about their employment prospects.

Catholic under-representation persists in only a few traditionally troublesome areas such as policing and local councils, where a chill factor tends to lead to a lack of applications.

Despite a substantial improvement in Catholic employment, they are still more likely than Protestants to be unemployed. Experts say, however, that both religions have what are in effect under-classes.

Most experts attribute the huge changes not to any softening of attitudes but to anti-discrimination laws that were introduced in the 1970s and considerably toughened in 1989. These led to a rigorous enforcement regime in which employers deemed guilty of discrimination were heavily fined, paying tens of thousands of pounds in some high-profile cases.

This process has had the paradoxical effect of bringing the two parts of the community together in the work place, even as housing segregation and political polarisation has steeply increased.