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Deflecting `MacBride'

FAIR employment is at the heart of the quest for social justice in Northern Ireland. That the overall jobless rate there is nearly 20 percent is bad enough. That Roman Catholics are, statistically, twice as likely as Protestants to be unemployed heightens the social and political tensions in the province. The latest developments in Britain's efforts to redress the injustice of employment discrimination are the issue of a glossy new ``Guide to Effective Employment Practice,'' and the current visit of the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Tom King, to the United States.

Specifically, he is understood to be lobbying against the ``MacBride principles,'' a code of fair-employment practice developed by Sean MacBride, Irish Nobel Peace Prize winner. The code's rules are considered to be unexceptionable. The British worry, however, is that US state legislatures and city councils will pass laws either requiring their local companies to run any Northern Ireland operations they have according to the MacBride rules, or requiring companies in which state or municipal pension funds invest to demonstrate compliance with MacBride.

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The extra paper work that such laws would ultimately require might be just the last straw to keep a firm out of Northern Ireland - or drive it out.

Unfortunately, the British still have a job to do of convincing the Catholic community - and the Irish-American community - that they are serious about ending job discrimination. Recent steps, such as the new employers' manual, are useful but do not solve the problem. And railing against MacBride may provoke the sort of confrontation in which many Irish-American politicians may end up feeling forced by constituents skeptical of the British record in Ireland to support MacBride laws after all.

Just how many would-be investors would be kept away by MacBride laws is hard to know. And any tough antidiscrimination program would likely place tough demands on employers.

But Mr. King and his colleagues should avail themselves more fully of the resources available to them under the Anglo-Irish accord, and work out, in consultation with Dublin, as well as the two religious traditions, a more pro-active approach that will preclude any perceived need for MacBride laws.

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