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Council / SIC says its Up Helly Aa involvement does not breach equality law

Lerwick Up Helly Aa 2019. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

SHETLAND Islands Council has emphasised that it complies with equality law when it comes to its relationship with Lerwick Up Helly Aa and its junior festival.

The local authority said on Wednesday that it had received a “number of queries and complaints over the past few months” relating to the fire festival.

The relationship between the senior and junior festivals and Shetland’s schools was in particular called into question.

Campaigners have in recent weeks and months criticised the festival for not allowing women to take part in squads as the gender debate – which has been active for years – intensified.

The jarl squad visits local primary schools, as does the junior Up Helly Aa squad, with the council also hosting a civic reception for the senior squad.

The Up Helly Aa committee has turned down requests from Shetland News for comment on the matter in recent months.

The council said it has “no right or wish to intervene in the governance of another organisation” – but chief executive Maggie Sandison said the time was right to respond publicly to the queries and complaints.

She said after looking into the matter, none of the council’s actions contravene the Equality Act 2010.

“I’m very well aware that there are strong feelings across the community about the involvement of women and girls in Shetland’s largest fire festival,” Sandison.

“It is not for Shetland Islands Council to pass judgement on how other organisations run their own business, but I did want to be assured that, as an organisation, the Council acts and behaves appropriately in this respect.

“I am satisfied that this is the case. However, this has given us a welcome opportunity to clarify some existing guidance, particularly for our schools, on issues such as visits from jarl squads.

“While I understand the outcome of this may not be universally welcome, I can reassure everyone that we do have a robust system in place to make sure every complaint is taken seriously, and handled with care.”