Catholic worker driven out of firm by sectarian hate: David McKittrick reports on the treatment given to a teenager by her loyalist colleagues

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The Independent Online
LIZA Neeson was 17 when she went to work in Belfast for one of the United Kingdom's largest security firms. She was the only Roman Catholic in the firm's headquarters, which was based in a Protestant area of the city.

After a difficult period with the firm she was sacked and took her case to an employment tribunal. Last December the tribunal, after hearing detailed evidence, awarded her pounds 25,000 for what it described as 'high-handed, malicious, insulting and oppressive discrimination'.

The tribunal was told letters were left on her desk stating 'Fucking Catholics', 'We know where you live', and 'UVF Taigs out'. The firm employed staff who were formerly officers in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, but none attempted to investigate the hate-mail. It heard evidence that she was introduced to people by a supervisor as 'This is Liza, our token Taig', and was constantly referred to as a 'Taig' and a 'Fenian'.

The tribunal's 18-page report described witnesses from the firm as 'evasive, selective, incredible and downright untruthful' and said some staff had been 'shameful, mean and sectarian'.

Although she was ostensibly dismissed for absenteeism, the tribunal concluded that the real reason was that the company 'believed it was easier to get rid of her than stand up to those who were taunting her because she was a Catholic'.

This is Ms Neeson's description of her time with the firm: 'One day they would be friendly and the next they wouldn't want to look at you. It got worse when there was any terrorist atrocity. The fact that I came from west Belfast made it 10 times worse.

'There was the incident in Andersonstown when the two corporals were murdered. When I came in the . . . Sun and the Star were spread out all over my desk showing the bodies. Everybody denied having brought them in but obviously they didn't get there on their own.

'I started to get the letters left on my desk. It was upsetting but I suppose being stubborn and only being 17 I was prepared to stick it out.

'Around 12 July it was really, really bad. The supervisor would wear short-sleeved shirts which showed his tattoo, which covered most of his forearm. It was a dagger and it said 'Ulster - Remember 1690 - no surrender'. I found it intimidating and I'm sure customers did as well.

'I didn't use to be quick to take offence, but towards the end I would have cried at anything. I hated it, I really hated it, and anything would have set me off.

'Now I work in west Belfast. I wouldn't go for a job outside my own area, apart from maybe the city centre. At least I know who I'm working with now. I still have Protestant friends, that hasn't changed, but I used to take people at face value and I don't now. I'm wary now.

'It's sad, but the lesson I take is, stay with your own, don't mix with anyone you don't know.'

CASES WHERE UNFAIRNESS WAS REVEALED

This list includes most cases in which a finding of discrimination or sectarian harassment was made, and some of the many cases which were settled.

1 Cases brought by Catholics.

Public sector.

Health boards: The Eastern health board, Northern Ireland's largest employer, was ordered to pay a Catholic woman pounds 25,000 for what a tribunal described as 'one of the worst and most blatant cases of discrimination by a state authority'. The tribunal accused the board of spinning 'a web of deceit' in an attempt to defeat the woman's claim, describing the board's conduct as 'outrageous and malicious'. She had suffered 'fear, humiliation, insult, stress and deep hurt' from the discrimination and subsequent victimisation.

In other cases against the Eastern health board, a Catholic woman settled for pounds 40,000, while two Catholic men settled for a total of pounds 31,000. The Northern health board paid a Catholic woman pounds 30,000 to settle a case, while the Western health board paid a Catholic man who had been turned down for an ambulance job pounds 7,000.

Local councils: Five Catholic employees of Belfast City Council were each awarded pounds 10,500, the tribunal describing council employment procedures as 'remarkable and bizarre'. The tribunal ruled that all five had been better qualified and had more relevant experience than the Protestant woman who got a job as senior community services officer. The woman appointed had five 'Junior' passes, one GCE O-level, typing qualifications, and a youth and community work diploma which had been awarded without an examination.

All the Catholic applicants had superior qualifications. One of them had a degree in education, a post-graduate diploma in education, a postgraduate certificate in youth and community studies and a master's degree in social policy, planning and administration.

A west Belfast Catholic accepted pounds 7,500 to settle a case against the same council, which admitted victimising him because he had previously made a complaint of discrimination against it.

A Catholic man was awarded pounds 24,000 after Ballymena council was found guilty of discrimination. He had been manager of the council abattoir for 17 years, but when a new abattoir was built the job went to a Protestant who had four-and-a-half years' experience as a part-time deputy superintendent. Limavady council was found guilty of discriminating against a Catholic man in the appointment of a chief technical services officer. He was awarded pounds 13,000. North Down council was ordered to pay a Catholic man pounds 5,000 for discrimination in the appointment of a deputy administrative officer. Dungannon council paid a Catholic woman pounds 8,000 to settle her case.

Others: Other public-sector cases include Queen's University, Belfast, which settled three cases, paying pounds 25,000 to a Catholic accountant, pounds 15,000 to a Catholic man who was turned down for a junior office job, and a further pounds 15,000 to a Catholic woman who left her job after receiving sectarian threats.

At the Northern Ireland Tourist Board a woman settled a case for pounds 15,000. A tribunal has ruled that a Catholic man was discriminated against by the Northern Ireland Electricity service.

Private sector.

A coachbuilding firm settled a case brought by a Catholic foreman it had dismissed, paying him pounds 40,000. He claimed he was better qualified than others who were not made redundant. A year before being laid off he had scored the highest Northern Ireland marks in the final examination of the Institute of Road Transport Engineers. A Catholic man accepted pounds 14,000 to settle a sectarian harassment case against an architect's office. The tribunal heard his arm had been twisted to force him to say things such as 'Ulster Volunteer Force' and 'I am a Fenian bastard'.

A Catholic man won pounds 13,000 damages against an east Belfast firm. The man, one of only three Catholics in a workforce of 140, complained of sectarian harassment in the workplace including the display of sectarian graffiti, the singing and whistling of Orange tunes and a reference to the 'Shankill Butchers' assassination gang.

A Catholic woman was awarded pounds 12,000 against a nursing home. A tribunal concluded she had been dismissed as head cook because several Protestant residents made it clear they would not accept Catholics working there. A Catholic man won pounds 8,000 compensation from a major Belfast car sales firm which had dismissed him without warning from his job selling Jaguar cars. A Catholic nurse was awarded pounds 7,000 after a tribunal heard the post she had applied for with a nursing home had been given to a Protestant woman who had not applied for it and who had been out of nursing for 17 years.

Two Catholic women were awarded a total of pounds 41,000 in cases against a security firm and a poultry company; a Catholic man was awarded pounds 13,000 against a Co Tyrone meat plant; two Catholic men were each awarded five-figure sums against a major housing concern. In eight other cases 12 Catholic men received settlements totalling pounds 107,000.

2 Cases brought by Protestants.

Public sector.

Eastern health board: A Protestant woman settled for pounds 20,000 and apology; two Protestant men for a total of pounds 22,000.

Local councils: A Protestant woman who had unsuccessfully applied for the chief executive's post at Cookstown council was awarded pounds 31,000.

Private sector.

A Protestant man accepted pounds 10,000 to settle a case of sectarian harassment at a Co Tyrone firm. Iron filings were put in his coffee jar.

In other cases a Protestant woman was awarded pounds 8,000; two schoolgirls were awarded total of pounds 7,000 for sectarian harassment while doing summer jobs in a Belfast cafe; a former Paisleyite councillor settled a case for pounds 12,000 against a lemonade firm and a Protestant man accepted pounds 5,000 and an apology to settle a case against a transport firm.

(Photograph omitted)

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