Belfast council guilty of religious bias over job

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The Independent Online
BELFAST city council, the scene of many political and sectarian dogfights over recent years, has been found guilty of religious discrimination in appointing a Protestant woman to a senior post in preference to five better-qualified Catholics.

The Fair Employment Tribunal in Belfast, which made the ruling, is to hold a special hearing to decide on compensation payments, which are likely to be substantial.

The tribunal used strong language in delivering its judgment, describing some aspects of employment procedures as remarkable and bizarre. This is the fifth example in eight months of Protestant-controlled councils being found guilty of discriminating against Catholics.

This pattern is of obvious concern to a government which is committed to working to reduce inequalities which affect the Catholic population. Belfast has great political and symbolic importance in that it is by far the largest council in Northern Ireland and one whose record is closely scrutinised.

The case concerned the appointment of a senior community services officer in 1990. The applicants included five Catholics who already worked for the council and a Protestant woman, who also worked for the council and was given the job. The tribunal ruled that the five Catholics had all been discriminated against.

It heard that the previous occupant of the post was a Catholic woman who had been criticised by 'very angry' Unionist councillors for writing a newspaper article in defence of people in Catholic west Belfast.

The complainants alleged the council official who chaired the interviews was intent on 'making sure he got someone safe to ensure an easier future relationship with his political masters'.

The tribunal carried out a detailed examination of application papers, took evidence from the complainants and heard the case argued by senior QCs for the complainants and the council. It found that compared to the woman appointed, all five were better qualified educationally and had more relevant experience.

One of the Catholic applicants had a degree in education, a postgraduate diploma in education, a postgraduate certificate in youth and community studies and a master's degree in social policy, planning and administration. The successful applicant, by contrast, had 5 'Junior' passes, one GCE O- level, typing qualifications, and a youth and community work diploma which had been awarded without an examination.

The selection procedure had been structured, however, so that education and qualifications made up only 7.5 per cent of possible marks, an allocation which the tribunal described as disturbing. It added that it was difficult to comprehend why the Protestant applicant had been given extra marks because she was a member of the Brownies as a child.

The tribunal said it could not explain the marks allocated by the interview chairman, who had given higher marks for experience to the Protestant candidate than to two of the Catholic candidates who each had three times as much experience as her.

The tribunal also said it found it odd that the one person in a group of six who had the least service should be given highest marks for displaying greatest knowledge of what was involved in community work. It concluded that the council's account of the interviews was not as full and frank as it claimed.