MLAs call for an end to religious discrimination in appointment of teachers

The Assembly has unanimously supported an end to lawful religious discrimination when appointing teachers - a groundbreaking move which the proposer says will pave the way for better community relations.

Tuesday, 18th May 2021, 12:08 pm
Updated Tuesday, 18th May 2021, 12:25 pm

Discrimination is outlawed in NI but exemptions allows schools to use religion as a factor when selecting teaching staff, despite a number of attempts to end the practise.

The UUP last tried to amend the law in 2016 - with backing from 45 MLAs - but was blocked with a Sinn Fein-SDLP petition of concern.

On Tuesday UUP MLA Robbie Butler’s motion called on the Assembly to acknowledge that the exemption is “unacceptable” and to call on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to repeal it.

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Fair employment legislation in NI currently has an exemption which allows religious discrimination when appointing teachers.

He cited an Ulster University paper which said that ‘no other profession carries the same burden of expectation around the building of the community bridges necessary to ensure a shared, peaceful future’.

He added: “I know that, across the Chamber, that is exactly what we want to see, even if we travel in different vehicles sometimes.”

He also cited a 2018 survey by the UNESCO Centre at Ulster University that showed how few NI teachers are employed by schools of a contrasting religious background to their own; Only 2% in Catholic Controlled Maintained Sector (CCMS) primaries, and only 7% in controlled primaries.

Similarly, the figures ranged from 8-17% in Catholic post primaries and 17-23% in non-Catholic post primaries.

DUP MLA Trevor Clarke commended Mr Butler.

“Given that he has gone through so many of the statistics, it is hard to follow him other than to lay out our support for the motion,” he said.

Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan noted that during the Equality Commission’s investigation, concerns were raised by Catholic schools that the exemption was, as he put it, “a necessary tool to protect the ethos of their schools”. However he added that he was now of the view that “an exemption from fair employment legislation is not the platform that should be used for nurturing any ethos in any school”.

SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan said that while it had been a “very contentious” issue in the Chamber before, “opinions have shifted”. He added: “The SDLP supports the motion as we believe that the legislative measure currently in place has long outlasted its necessity.”

Alliance’s Chris Lyttle, who is preparing a bill on the same issue, said he was “genuinely shocked” that no Executive minister attended the debate.

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