THE GROUP campaigning for gender equality in Lerwick Up Helly Aa says the issue can “no longer be swept under the carpet” after Shetland Islands Council (SIC) launched its own investigation into whether its involvement with the fire festival breached equality law.
In a press statement issued on Wednesday, the SIC said its links with the Lerwick Up Helly Aa and its junior festival did not contravene the Equality Act 2010. (Read the full story here).
The council had received a number of queries and complaints about its involvement, and had sought advice from its own legal team regarding complaints around the Equality Act and schools.
Sally Huband of the Up Helly Aa for Aa campaign group – formerly known as Shetland for UHA Equality – said the advice from the SIC was just that and shouldn’t been interpreted as a ruling.
“We would like to stress that this is not a ‘ruling’ in any legal sense – only courts and parliament can make these rulings. This is a SIC clarification of guidance following an investigation that SIC initiated”, she said.
Huband continued saying that the group did not submit a complaint, but had written to the SIC asking the local authority if it would work with the group on the equality issue.
The Up Helly Aa jarl squad visits local primary schools, as does the junior squad, with a civic reception for the senior squad hosted at the Lerwick Town Hall.
Schools and the Town Hall are also used as halls for the night time festivities.
Women and girls do not take part in the squads for either the senior or junior Lerwick Up Helly Aa and this has provoked strong debate locally.
Huband added that the group had written twice to the Up Helly Aa committee last year in support of girls and women who would like to join squads, with no response forthcoming.
They also wrote to the Junior Up Helly Aa committee to support four secondary two Anderson High School pupils whose application to form a squad was rejected.
Huband said that the junior committee did respond but only to confirm that they would not accept applications from girls.
“As a consequence of both committees refusing to engage with us, we wrote to SIC to ask if we could work collaboratively with them to encourage an end to this discrimination and confirm their commitment to their public sector equality duty,” Huband said.
“Up Helly Aa for Aa did not submit a complaint to SIC. SIC instead chose to initiate a complaints process. We are disappointed that SIC has instead triggered this more formal complaints process.
“We are surprised that SIC issued a press release before allowing Up Helly Aa for Aa the opportunity to read their stage two response.”
Huband continued to say that “it would be impressive indeed if SIC have been able to obtain independent legal advice or perhaps counsel’s opinion on such a specialist matter so quickly and so exhaustively”.
“We look forward to any such legal advice resulting from this investigation being published quickly by SIC, in the interests of fair and transparent government, and to SIC’s commitment to its freedom of information duties, which are there to ensure the same,” she said.
Huband said the campaign group noted that the SIC has now publicly admitted that there are women and girls who have made their concerns known to the council regarding the “prevention of their full participation in this public festival”.
“We can no longer sweep this issue under the carpet. The fact remains that there are females in Shetland who do wish to participate but who are being prevented from doing so solely because they are women or girls,” she continued.
Huband said the campaign group looks forward to moving forward with the SIC “with regards to how it tackles its duties as a local authority in carrying out all of its statutory functions in accordance with its stated compliance with its equality duty whilst women and girls are still prevented from taking part in this festival in a role of their choosing”.
Up Helly Aa for Aa said it remains committed to working collaboratively with both UHA committees and with SIC to “resolve this ongoing issue”.
Read the group’s full response to the SIC statement here.