Cooper, Bob (Robert George) (1936–2004), politician and civil servant, was born in Co. Donegal on 24 June 1936, elder son of William Hugh Cooper, schoolteacher, and his wife Annie (née Pollock). He was educated at Foyle College, Derry, then studied law at Queen's University, Belfast, where he was chairman of the Young Unionists, and graduated LLB. He had a convivial personality; one contemporary reminisced: 'you wouldn't find Bob in the library'. Within the Young Unionists, Cooper was an outspoken supporter of the reformist wing, associated with figures such as Brian Maginess (qv), and he forcefully criticised Lord Brookeborough (qv) for unwillingness to reform the Northern Ireland state. After graduation Cooper worked for International Computers Ltd, Belfast (1958–63) and then with the Engineering Employers' Federation (NI) as assistant secretary (1963–7) and secretary (1967–72), with particular reference to industrial relations. He married Patricia Nichol of Belfast, a catholic, in 1974; they had a son and a daughter. In later years his wife's religion was the subject of many anti‑Cooper whispering campaigns.
In February 1969 Cooper was a founding member of the New Ulster Movement, a pro‑Terence O'Neill (qv) pressure group which in 1970 became the nucleus of the cross‑community Alliance Party. Cooper was a co‑founder of Alliance, and later left industrial relations to become its full‑time general secretary (1972–3). Cooper was the party's deputy leader (1973–6); the leader, Oliver Napier (who had known Cooper since they were both law students) stated that he and Cooper were virtually joint leaders. According to his Irish Times obituarist some commentators thought Cooper was a better communicator than Napier and might have been a more successful party leader.
In June 1973 Cooper was elected for the West Belfast constituency to the new Northern Ireland Assembly, and was one of the Alliance negotiators in the talks leading to the Sunningdale agreement of December 1973. In the administration formed under that agreement in January 1974 Cooper was minister for manpower services (as such he was not a member of the executive). In this new department, split off from the previous Ministry of Health and Social Services, Cooper rapidly formed an alliance with its leading civil servant, George Quigley; Maurice Hayes recalled them as 'a formidable combination who quickly became immersed in the preparation of anti‑discrimination legislation and in reviewing the industrial relations and training fields' (Hayes, Minority verdict, 170). Cooper also worked with Paddy Devlin (qv), minister for health and social services, on a pioneering scheme to provide employment for the disabled. Cooper was bitterly disappointed at the destruction of the executive by the Ulster Workers' Council strike in May 1974; at one of the last ministerial meetings he complained that the British government under Harold Wilson had opted for 'firm words and soft actions' in dealing with the strikers, when it should have done the reverse (Bloomfield, 219).
Cooper was elected in 1975 to the Northern Ireland constitutional convention, again for West Belfast. After the failure of the convention, he left politics in 1976 to become chairman of the Fair Employment Agency (FEA). He thus became the public face of the drive to eliminate discrimination in employment (particularly against catholics) by legislative means and enforcement tribunals. His activities (which included a forceful report on imbalances within the Northern Ireland civil service) aroused considerable criticism from unionists, many of whom refused to accept that employment discrimination had existed to any significant extent. Cooper often remarked in conversation that he was seen as a traitor to his own people, and he frequently received snubs, insults, and hate mail.
Criticism of Cooper was not confined to hard‑line unionists; some academics, while not denying the existence of discrimination, maintained that Cooper's view that discrimination could be measured by comparing the percentage of catholics in employment with their percentage of the population of Northern Ireland failed to take account of complicating factors such as the peripherality of many catholic‑majority areas. Insofar as Cooper took any notice of such criticisms, his response was to point out that a situation where catholics were two and a half times likelier to be unemployed than protestants represented a disparity too great to be explained other than by widespread discrimination. Ironically, unionists often complained that the overrepresentation of catholics on the FEA staff (in proportion to their share of the population of Northern Ireland) was such that a private employer showing the same imbalance would have been presumed guilty of discrimination. Cooper retorted that it was normal for such bodies elsewhere to have a disproportionate number of employees drawn from groups subject to discrimination such as blacks or women: 'the important thing is that we make it clear that protestants are welcome' (Belfast Telegraph, 17 November 2004). At the same time, some nationalists criticised the FEA for being insufficiently aggressive in its anti‑discrimination measures, and both sides of the community saw Cooper as exemplifying the political influence of a 'quangocracy' of British‑appointed administrators, many drawn from the Alliance Party.
Cooper actively opposed a campaign, led by Seán MacBride (qv), which called on American firms and institutions not to invest in Northern Ireland firms unless they implemented various anti‑discrimination measures (known as the 'MacBride principles') enforced by independent monitoring; Cooper felt disinvestment would damage the Northern Ireland economy as a whole and some of the measures were outside the control of individual firms. The MacBride campaign, however, indirectly assisted Cooper's persistent lobbying for tougher anti‑discrimination laws. Under legislation passed in 1989, the FEA was replaced in 1990 by the Fair Employment Commission (FEC) with substantially increased powers and Cooper as its chairman. A unionist is said to have commented that it was typically cunning of the British to appoint such a thick‑skinned individual to chair the FEA (Belfast Telegraph, 17 November 2004). This contributed to a noticeable increase in the catholic percentage of the workforce, though catholics remained significantly more likely to be unemployed than protestants.
Whatever criticisms may be made of some details of Cooper's work, there can be no doubt that he helped to reduce the employment discrimination which was one of the most destructive legacies of the unionist ancien régime. In an obituary tribute Oliver Napier declared that Cooper and his staff, by making employment discrimination undeniable and unsustainable, had produced 'the biggest social change that we will see in our lifetimes' (Irish News, 20 November 2004). He was knighted for his services to equal opportunities in 1998, and received an honorary degree (LLD) from QUB in 1999.
In 1999 Cooper retired as head of the FEC. In September 2000 he became head of the Integrated Education Fund, campaigning to increase the provision of integrated schools in Northern Ireland. Cooper retained this position until shortly before his death, resigning only when forced to do so by ill health. He was a governor of Lagan College, which both his children attended. From 1976 to 1999 he was a member of the secretary of state's standing advisory committee on human rights.
He died of cancer at his home in Hollywood, Co. Down, in the early hours of 16 November 2004. The Irish News report of his death was headed: 'He planted fairness in the workplace.' At his funeral, Napier praised his hatred for injustice and declared that he had been 'one of those presbyterians who most of us believed had been wiped out on the battlefields of Antrim and Ballynahinch in 1798' (Irish News, 20 November 2004).