A separate Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland (EOCNI) was set up to ensure enforcement of the 1976 Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order. In 1983-84, a highly effective media and communications strategy resulted in the first ruling that sexual harassment was a form of discrimination in Northern Ireland.


Evelyn Collins was the Senior Education and Information Officer at the EOCNI in August 1983, at the time that the TUC for Great Britain published its pamphlet Sexual Harassment at Work:

‘It was sort of pilloried in the press. We had a lot of Sun, Daily Mirror headlines like, ‘TUC says “Hands off brothers.”’ But we knew here in Northern Ireland, August was always a relatively quiet month for news … Anyway, the local BBC rang the EOC. I was in the office at the time …. “Would we come on and talk about sexual harassment?” …. I went on. My first TV interview was for BBC Northern Ireland on what we thought about the TUC guidance and what we thought about sexual harassment. This was difficult because there were no cases confirming that sexual harassment equalled sex discrimination at that time. Anyway, I went on the news and said we thought sexual harassment was sex discrimination. We thought it was unacceptable workplace behaviour. We would assist anybody who had a complaint …. Almost the next day or two days later …. a young woman rang the office and said, “That happened to me. What Evelyn was talking about on the news the other night, that happened to me.”’

(Interview for ‘Gender Equalities at Work’)


The EOC for Northern Ireland provided legal support for the 17-year-old woman, an apprentice garage mechanic forced to quit her job as result of the appalling behaviour of her colleagues (and lack of action by her boss).

The industrial tribunal hearing (Mortiboys v. Crescent Garage Ltd), which concluded in February 1984, was the first successful case in which sexual harassment was found to constitute unlawful sex discrimination in Northern Ireland. The chair of the tribunal was Sheelagh Murnaghan (one of the first female barristers in Northern Ireland, former Liberal politician and human rights campaigner). In the judgement she said:

‘We are aware that it is fairly commonplace for apprentices to be subjected to a certain amount of teasing, but we find on the evidence that the harassment suffered by the applicant went beyond the normal bounds, and had the effect that it became impossible for her to continue her apprenticeship with the respondent. We further find that the main reason for the harassment was the fact that she was a female in “a man’s world”, and that it amounted to sex discrimination’ (EOCNI, 8th Report, 67).’


The case made the front page of both the Irish News and the Belfast Telegraph on 24 February 1984, the latter commenting in its editorial:

‘The Equal Opportunities Commission, which assisted in bringing the claim … has made a significant point on women’s rights …. Yesterday’s decision stands as a salutary reminder that women have a channel of redress and that offensive behaviour need not go unpunished’.


As Collins (who went on to be CEO of EOCNI and then the Equality Commission 2000-2022) has commented: ‘It was a very brave of her. A very important case to the Industrial Tribunal, who gave a very, very clear decision’.

Further reading

  • 8th Report of the EOCNI, March 1984, House of Commons, Paper 178.
  • Constance Rynder (2006) ‘Sheelagh Murnaghan And The Struggle For Human Rights In Northern Ireland’, Irish Studies Review, 14, 4, 447-463.

'Sexual Harassment is no laughing matter'. Poster produced by the EOCNI. Reproduced with kind permission of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. TWL.2003.235.a Equality in the Workplace. Sexual Harassment is no laughing matter

Poster created by the EOCNI. Reproduced with kind permission of the Equalities Commission for Northern Ireland.