Parties across chamber agree to amend religious discrimination exemptions in education

Parties right across the Assembly chamber agreed today that they want to amend legislation which allows religious discrimination in education.

Monday, 7th June 2021, 9:37 pm
Updated Monday, 7th June 2021, 9:56 pm
Education Minister Peter Weir said he had no objections to changing legislation. Photo Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press

Article 71 of the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 exempts teachers from the fair employment legislation.

Concerns have been voiced in the past that removing the exemption could lead to Catholic schools losing their religious ethos.

Education Minister Peter Weir was quizzed about the matter during his department’s Assembly questions.

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Mr Weir said he is “committed to delivering equality for all school sectors”, but pointed out it lies within the remit of the Executive Office.

“I have Executive Office in support of repealing Article 71 of the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, and I know it is something I think there is a broad support across the chamber,” he told MLAs.

“Any amendment to that legislation would ultimately be a matter that they (Executive Office) have to bring forward for them to address. While my department is not taking a lead in taking this forward, DE officials will facilitate and act as a point of contact through to the education sector.”

Ulster Unionist MLA John Stewart pointed out that First Minister Arlene Foster last month said she is not blocking the move.

Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle asked whether the minister would support his proposed private members bill, to which Mr Weir responded: “yes, in principle”.

Sinn Fein MLA Emma Sheerin said all parties agree the exemption should be removed, and asked Mr Weir if he was aware of any outside objections to the move.

Mr Weir said he was not aware of any outside objection.

SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan put to Mr Weir there was confusion that if all parties support the repeal, why it has not been progressed, adding it was “becoming a game of Guess Who”.

Mr Weir responded saying he could only confirm that he, and his party colleague Mrs Foster were in support of it.

“I can’t really speculate on what is happening as regards legislation in another government department,” he said.

In 2004, the Equality Commission found there was still some support for the exemption for teachers.

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