If you have ever been employed in Northern Ireland, you will have come across the following question:
Regardless of whether we practice religion, most of us in Northern Ireland are seen as either Catholic or Protestant. We are therefore asking you to indicate your community background by ticking the appropriate box below.
□ I am a member of the Protestant Community
□ I am a member of the Roman Catholic Community
□ I am a member of neither the Protestant nor Roman Catholic Community
If you do not complete this questionnaire we are encouraged to use the “residuary” method which means we can make a determination on the basis of information on file/application form.
Translation: we know this question is inaccurate and potentially offensive, but we are required by law to ask it anyway. If you refuse to answer, we will make something up.
It is inaccurate is because religion is being used as a proxy for something else, something it is afraid to name. That is why it does not ask if you personally are a Protestant or a Catholic, but whether you come from that-community-which-is-mostly-Protestant or that-community-which-is-mostly-Catholic. These are not names, they are circumlocutions. Replacing “Protestant” and “Catholic” with “Unionist” and “Nationalist” is not an improvement – they do not really want to know what your personal political beliefs are. They want to know which tribe you are from. It would be more straightforward – and honest – to ask the following instead:
What is your ethnic background?
The words may be shocking, but they cut to the chase. We are not potential victims of discrimination because of our religion, but because of the ethnic origin that membership of a particular denomination implies. Our personal politics are no defence either – a Hun who professes to be a Republican merely invites increased suspicion from both sides.
The old story of the Belfast rabbi being asked “are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew?” is well worn, precisely because it contains an important truth. “Protestant” and “Catholic” in this context don’t actually mean Protestant and Catholic. What the questioners are really asking, in an inarticulate way, is “we don’t care what religion you are, are you a Hun or a Taig?” When expressed using blunt language, the absurdities are cast aside and the truth exposed.