Exemption of teachers from fair employment law 'past sell-by date'

By Robbie Meredith
BBC News NI Education Correspondent

  • Published
Teacher marking, surrounded by booksImage source, PA

The exemption of teachers from fair employment legislation "has passed its sell-by date," MLAs have been told.

That is according to Dr Matthew Milliken from Ulster University (UU) in evidence to Stormont's Education Committee.

The recruitment of teachers is exempt from legislation outlawing religious discrimination in Northern Ireland.

The committee chairman, Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, said he was "profoundly uncomfortable" with that.

SDLP MLA Justin McNulty also said he was "disgusted" by the exemption of teachers from fair employment legislation.

"I can't believe that it still exists in this day and age, I find that extraordinary," he said.

In 1976, the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act exempted teachers and clergy as "the essential nature of the job requires it be done by a person holding, or not holding, a particular religious belief".

That was maintained in the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998.

The Equality Commission looked into whether the exemption should be abandoned in 2004, but found that there was still some support for it.

There were concerns that ending it would lead to Catholic schools losing their religious ethos and becoming non-denominational.

There were also worries that from the Protestant churches that Protestant teachers would be disadvantaged because of the need for teachers in Catholic Primary schools to have a Certificate in Religious Education (RE).

"A form of discrimination already existed, it was argued, in that 'Catholics could apply to controlled schools, but Protestants could not apply to Catholic schools'," the Equality Commission investigation said.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Some MLAs at the Education Committee were critical of the fact that teachers were exempt from fair employment laws

But Dr Milliken told the committee on Wednesday that the fair employment exemption for teachers had "passed its sell-by date".

"Protectionism of sectoral interests seems to be at the core of any opposition to its repeal," he said.

"A school interview panel can directly choose between one candidate and another solely on the basis of religion."

'Out of date legislation'

Dr Milliken also said that in his experience most school principals did not want to employ teachers on the basis of their faith.

"Principals want to employ the teacher that best fits their needs," he said.

"They don't want to simply have to look at faith as a way of determining which teachers they have to employ."

Many MLAs on the committee were critical of the fact that teachers were exempt from fair employment laws.

The Ulster Unionist Party's Robbie Butler said it was "sad" that teachers were "so segregated" in 2021.

"It's perverse legislation and that's speaking as someone who is a person of faith," he said.

The DUP's William Humphrey, meanwhile, called the exemption "archaic".

"As a person of faith as well, the question that has to be asked is why on earth do we have it?" he asked.

"I just don't think it's acceptable in this day and age."

"I just do not think this is fair."

Sinn Féin MLA Pat Sheehan also said he did not support the fair employment exemption and wanted to hear from the four main churches about their position on it.