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Equality and Peace in Northern Ireland

April 22nd 2011

Bob Collins, Chief Commissioner, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland - from View from the Chair, Business Newsletter, 12 April 2011

The murder of the young Constable in Omagh ten days ago was a shocking event; horrifying in its intent and in its consequences. It struck at several fundamental principles that are central to civilised and democratic societies. At its heart, it attacked the most basic right of all, the right to life that is antecedent to all law. And its most awful consequences are felt by the family that grieves for a life full of promise that was so wantonly taken.

It may have had a number of unintended results, however. It brought together, in a way that few might have foreseen, leaders of government, political parties, churches, cultural and sporting organisations together with countless citizens in a powerful statement of the indivisible nature of people as human beings and of the way that they could share the future of Northern Ireland. It brought forth a resounding affirmation of hope as a counter to the nihilism of violence.

It did one other thing. It illuminated very starkly and clearly what the real character of fair employment legislation is. This murder and all the other attacks on members of the police service are profound assaults on the principle of equality of opportunity and on the intentions of fair employment legislation. It is impossible to profess a commitment to, or desire for, equality of opportunity and seek to launch murderous assaults on people simply because of the area of the public service in which they have sought to make their professional commitment.

The essential, underpinning foundation of fair employment is the right to seek employment where one’s interests and abilities lie; and to be able to do so without threat, harassment or intimidation. Police officers enjoy that right no less than anyone else covered by the law. Fair employment is seen in a new light when it is so blatantly challenged. There can be no selective interpretation of the law. And no notion of equality of opportunity can make accommodation with murder.

Employers and trades unions have worked closely with the Equality Commission over the years and have given clear and effective leadership in tackling many of the problems which a divided society inevitably brought into the workplace. The development of open, welcoming and harmonious workplaces has had an important and positive impact in developing shared places in a community where too many aspects of life are separated. The Police Service has played a crucial role in that process and the changes over the past decade have already had an enormous impact for the better in many different aspects of life in Northern Ireland, and carry a great promise of a better and more peaceful future. These gains are much too important, for all of us and for those who will come after us, to allow them to be undermined.

The deepest impact of this awful event is, of course, the personal tragedy for Mr Kerr’s family, the dignity of whose response was so movingly expressed by his mother. Her quiet words pose a challenge and offer an inspiration for us all. Let them not go unheeded.