Queen portraits removed from government offices after 'offended' civil servant paid £10,000 for having to walk past them

‘He immediately looked puzzled,’ says unionist peer who told Boris Johnson of ‘rather bizarre’ row

Adam Forrest
Thursday 01 August 2019 13:01 BST
Civil servant 'offended' at walking past portrait of Queen paid £10,000 in compensation

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Louise Thomas

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Portraits of the Queen have been taken down from the Belfast headquarters of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) after a senior civil servant who was “offended” by them was awarded £10,000 compensation.

A series of landscape paintings have replaced the depictions of the head of state and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh.

Photos of the Queen meeting late Sinn Fein vice president Martin McGuinness were suggested as replacements but rejected, the News Letter newspaper reported.

The Ulster Unionist Party politician Lord Empey said he had raised the matter with a “surprised” Boris Johnson during a meeting at Stormont House – the NIO’s Belfast HQ – earlier this week.

“He immediately looked puzzled and looked around in each direction for some guidance from officials on either side of him. One intervened with a comment about it being a personnel issue,” Lord Empey told the newspaper.

“There was no definitive response from him but the matter has been squarely laid on the table and we shall see what emerges,” added the peer, who vowed to pursue the “rather bizarre” matter further.

In a separate interview, he said: “This case goes back to 2012, it was actually secretary of state Theresa Villiers who was in office when the case was settled, so it's not a new issue, but we made the very simple point that while respecting of course the fact that people here have different identities and aspirations, nevertheless if you are working in a UK Government department, it's not unreasonable to expect to see at some stage a photograph of the head of state.”

Last month Lord Maginnis told the House of Lords that a civil servant had been paid the compensation for “hurt feelings and distress” caused by having to walk past portraits of Elizabeth II.

The former Ulster Unionist Party MP said: “This is scandalous. It is an indictment of the Northern Ireland Office and of this government.”

Queen Elizabeth II visiting Northern Ireland in 2016 to mark her 90th birthday
Queen Elizabeth II visiting Northern Ireland in 2016 to mark her 90th birthday (PA Archive/PA Images)

Asked about the issue, the new Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith said he had been “delighted” to find a portrait of the Queen hanging in his office at Stormont House.

“I also recognise the importance of the Northern Ireland Office being an open and inclusive place to work, able to attract highly-skilled people from across all parts of our community in Northern Ireland,” he added. “As an employer in Northern Ireland, the NIO takes its obligations under the Northern Ireland Act and Fair Employment legislation seriously.”

In a parliamentary question response published on Wednesday, Lord Duncan – a junior minister at the NIO – said there are royal portraits at the department’s London office.

“Royal portraits hang on public display at Hillsborough Castle, and also in the London office occupied by the Northern Ireland Office,” he said in response to a question from Lord Rogan.

A government spokesman previously said: “The government takes its obligation under fair employment legislation very seriously. We will not comment on individual personnel matters.”

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