Council puts lid on discrimination cases
BY CAITLIN DOHERTY
The Belfast City Council has been accused of operating a policy of censorship on cases brought against it on discrimination grounds.
The accusation follows an August ruling which concluded that the Council discriminated against a nationalist employee at the place of his work. The case was concealed from the members of the council as well as from the relevant committee.
The case, brought forward to the Fair Employment Tribunal by a Council employee who worked at Belfast's Dunbar Street cleansing depot, focused on the presence of politically loaded symbols and the atmosphere it created amongst the workers and management. In January 1994, the employee made complaints about the presence of a framed picture of the Queen at his workplace. In late 1994, after discussions with trade unions and management, he accepted an informal arrangement according to which the portrait would be removed during the redecoration of the Depot.
In 1995, the Council decided to conduct an internal and extensive audit in the entire department to establish the existence of such items. It also decided to give the workforce Equal Opportunities Training as a follow-up to the council's decision to develop an Equal Opportunities Policy and policy on sectarian harassment.
However, in May 1997, some three years after the issue was first raised and despite the intervention of the Council's Human Resources Manager in 1995, the portrait was still in place and the matter was not resolved.
In September 1997, some of the staff members decided to remove the portrait from the office and it has not been since replaced.
In a ruling on 4 August, the Tribunal concluded that the applicant was ``unlawfully discriminated against on the grounds of his religious belief and political opinion and was victimised'' by the Council.
The Tribunal found that, according to the Code of Practice adopted by the Council, there was an obligation on the Council to promote a ``good and harmonious working environment. For this to be achieved material that could cause offence to employees should be removed.
The Tribunal also pointed out to the fact that the Council's own Equal Opportunities Policy aims to ``safeguard the right of all workers to work without intimidation and harassment''. The Tribunal found that the display of the portrait clearly violated such policies. The most disturbing aspect of the case is however the effort made by the council to suppress all information relevant to these developments. Despite the ruling being made some four months ago, Council officers suppressed the information by not informing members of the Contract Services Committee.
Micheal Browne, Sinn Féin Lower Falls Councillor and member of the Committee has hit out at the Council. ``It is a matter of concern that the Council allowed itself to be placed in such a situation in the first place,'' he said.
``Members of the Council and the relevant committee should have been made aware of this case, the developments from the start as well as any action taken against the council''. Browne said he hoped the Council and Council employees would learn from this experience and endeavour in future to ensure that the workplace is a totally neutral environment.