Not a Unionist (Commissioner) about the place?

The appointment of former RTE DG Bob Collins as NI’s Equality Commissioner has caused something of a political storm, coming as it does on the heels of a decision to appoint another non-Unionist Professor Monica McWilliams as Human Rights Commissioner. Dan McGinn was one of the first to interview Collins, who is keen that people should not judge him by his general background alone.By Dan McGinn, PA Ireland Political Editor

The incoming head of Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission tonight insisted he was coming to the role with an open mind despite unionist concerns about him.

Following criticism of the Government’s appointment of the former director general of the Irish Republic’s state broadcaster RTE, Co Kerry-born Bob Collins urged unionist and nationalist politicians to make no assumptions about him as he prepared to take over the job. Democratic Unionist MPs Peter Robinson and Gregory Campbell and Ulster Unionist equality spokesman Dermot Nesbitt queried his suitability for the post.

But in his first interview since his appointment, Mr Collins, who was in Turkey for his son’s wedding, told the Press Association: “My message to unionist and nationalist politicians is wait and see. Do not make any assumptions about me on the basis of where I come from. I see the role of the commission as addressing the needs of the entire community in Northern Ireland, the real concerns of citizens and communities and not to address issues on a sectional basis. I am open to having conversations with everybody and will be completely
open and objective.”

The new Equality Commission chief was born in Killarney in the Irish
Republic and grew up in Adare, Co Limerick. He served as the director general of RTE between 1997 and 2003 when he stepped down to pursue other interests. Mr Collins had been with the company since 1975 where he served in a number of roles including director of television and director of corporate affairs. The new chief commissioner succeeds Dame Joan Harbison who steps down in July.

Nationalist and unionist politicians in the province have been critical of the commission, claiming it has failed to address their constituents’ concerns. Mr Collins’ appointment by Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain angered Democratic Unionist deputy leader Peter Robinson who said after the recent appointment of former Women’s Coalition MLA Monica McWilliams as the head of the Human Rights Commission, it was a further sleight against the unionist
community.

“At a time when the Government should be encouraging greater engagement from unionists with bodies such as the Human Rights and Equality Commissions they are appointing people that are not likely to command the confidence of the majority community in Northern Ireland,” the East Belfast MP complained.

“This perverse strategy is not only likely to antagonise unionists but will merely increase their sense of alienation with such bodies. We now have a situation in the province where the chief commissioners for neither the Human Rights nor Equality Commission have a background in the unionist community. With the latest appointments, the Equality Commission will have an uphill task to persuade unionists that it is serious about tackling their concerns.”

Ulster Unionist MLA Dermot Nesbitt said: “The new Chief Commissioner I do not know and I bear him no personal ill will, but I am bound to say that this appointment, together with recent appointments to the Human Rights Commission, does not at first impression engender confidence from the unionist community.

“I simply ask how is Mr Collins representative of the Northern Ireland community, coming from 30 years of working in Dublin and also continuing to hold three other public appointments in the Irish Republic?” Mr Collins insisted his background in RTE had given him the qualities needed to head the Equality Commission.

“I come to this post with experience of showing detachment and objectivity”, he said. “Much of my career was spent in public service broadcasting and I had to bring editorial objectivity to every issue I dealt with on a daily basis.

“I bring no baggage. I bring no preconceptions. What I do bring to this role is complete openness to the issues facing the Equality Commission and a commitment to work with other commissioners on
concerns expressed by whomsoever in Northern Ireland. I will meet with everybody including the political parties and other organisations.” Mr Collins paid tribute to his predecessor, saying he had considerable respect for her work as head of the commission.

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain also appointed four new commissioners today. They include Professor Eithne McLaughlin of Queen’s University and CBI council member Bryan Johnston. He also appointed James Knox, a policy and research officer with the Rainbow Project which works with lesbians, gays and bisexuals, and retired hotelier and state registered nurse Elaine Waterson, who has previously served on the boards of the Housing Executive and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.

Mr Hain said Mr Collins was the right person to head the commission.
“A champion for equality throughout his career, Bob Collins brings to the commission not only valuable experience of running a high profile
organisation but also hands-on experience of making equality a reality,” he said.

“Together, these five new commissioners have the knowledge, practical skills and academic understanding to make a real contribution to the protection and promotion of equality in Northern Ireland. I am confident they will continue to enhance the commission’s pivotal role in advancing rights and protection for everyone in Northern Ireland.” Mr Hain also paid tribute to the work of Dame Joan and three outgoing commissioners, Ruth Lavery, Alan Henry and Ann Hope.

Mr Collins and the new commissioners were warned by Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams they would be judged on how they fulfilled the objectives for equality in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Nationalist SDLP equality spokesperson Patricia Lewsley said the commission had a lot of challenges ahead of it, including tackling higher rates of unemployment in the Catholic community, lower pay among women and hate crimes against ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians.

Democratic Unionist MP Gregory Campbell said the commission would also need to address disadvantages faced by members of the unionist community seeking work. Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern said Mr Collins had done an outstanding job as the director general of RTE, steering it through a period of change.

He continued: The Equality Commission is a key institution of the Good Friday Agreement. The appointment of Bob Collins as Chief Commissioner will ensure that its work to protect and promote equality is consolidated and advanced. The outgoing Chief Commissioner and commissioners are to be commended for their valuable contribution since the establishment of the commission. I wish those appointed today every success in their future work.”