Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Obituary: Sir Robert (Bob) Cooper

During his 23 years at the helm of preventing discrimination in employment, Bob Cooper had to endure relentless criticism.

During his 23 years at the helm of preventing discrimination in employment, Bob Cooper had to endure relentless criticism.

There were unionists who believed that the Fair Employment Agency which he headed, later to be replaced by the Fair Employment Commission, was not interested in discrimination against Protestants.

There were nationalists who felt that anti-discrimination measures were not aggressive enough.

At the time of Cooper's 1976 appointment as head of the FEA, aged 39, a unionist politician is said to have remarked that was typical of the "cunning" of the British Government to appoint someone who was so thick-skinned.

But Sir Robert, as he would later become, had plenty of admirers too - he had prior experience of working in a highly-charged atmosphere, in the short-lived 1974 power sharing Executive, where he had served as Minister for Manpower Services.

In 1970, he had helped found the Alliance Party and he was elected from West Belfast to the 1973 Assembly.

Born in 1936 in a Protestant part of Donegal, close to the border, Sir Robert's mother was a schoolteacher and the family tradition was unionist.

He attended Foyle College in Londonderry, then Queen's where he took an LLB and was chairman of the Young Unionists.

Some critics observed that, as a Presbyterian southerner married to a Catholic, Sir Robert's personal CV fitted the bill for his role in fighting discrimination.

Some pointed to the imbalance in FEC staff in favour of Catholics.

"In any body such as this, you will always see a preponderance of those vulnerable," Sir Robert explained. "You see it in England, where blacks or women are concerned. The important thing is we make it clear that Protestants are welcome."

After retiring as chairman of the FEC for Northern Ireland in 1999, Sir Robert served as the chairman of the Integrated Education Fund, until earlier this year, where he took over the development campaign to increase the number of integrated school places available to children in Northern Ireland.

He was also a member of the Secretary of State's Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights from 1976 to 1999.

In 1998 Robert George Cooper, CBE, received a knighthood for services to equal opportunities.

Sir Robert died peacefully in his Co Down home yesterday morning.

He is survived by his wife, Lady Pat Cooper, his son William, and daughter Anne.

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