Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

Murphy has questions to answer on appointments

Conor Murphy

Did the former Sinn Fein minister Conor Murphy discriminate on religious grounds against Protestants? Did he appoint a Catholic to the post of chair of Northern Ireland Water in the knowledge that the best candidate was Dr Alan Lennon, a Protestant?

Did he add additional criteria to the selection procedure in order to deny the post to Dr Lennon?

Was Mr Murphy economical with the truth in his evidence to a fair employment tribunal, which found that not only had he discriminated against Dr Lennon, but that he had a record of passing over Protestants for jobs in the Regional Development department?

In the new Northern Ireland, where equality and partnership are supposed to go hand in hand, burning with the brightness of an Olympic cauldron over the Stormont Executive, a dark tale of discrimination dampens the glow.

The issue of whether Mr Murphy committed the cardinal sin of discrimination cannot be allowed to rest. It is crucial not only to his future as a public representative, but also to Sinn Fein's credibility as a party which has equality as a pillar of its agenda.

If Stormont ministers cannot be trusted to make senior public appointments, then devolution is not worth a candle.

Whatever the support the MP for Newry and Armagh has received from his party leadership, he is seriously damaged goods, unless something emerges to counter the damning findings of the tribunal which examined Dr Lennon's case.

The tribunal ruled in June that Dr Lennon was subject of unlawful discrimination on grounds of religious belief and that Mr Murphy had breached the code for public appointments. During Mr Murphy's time as minister, between 2007-2011, there was "a material bias against the appointment of candidates from a Protestant background".

"In the reality of the political and religious environment in Northern Ireland, the tribunal finds the minister's evidence is implausible and lacks credibility."

It is hard to see how anyone found to be so much at fault could remain as a public representative yet Mr Murphy is still a Westminster MP and prominent figure in Sinn Fein.

The Sinn Fein leadership has jumped to his defence. The Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, even went so far as to question the right of the tribunal to interfere in ministerial appointments.

He said: "What this calls into question, in this particular case, is whether or not a minister has a right to make a ministerial appointment or are ministerial appointments going to be dictated by a body which, effectively, is not part of the Government?"

Whose opinion are we to accept? That of Mr Murphy or Mr McGuinness? Or the forensic findings of the tribunal?

Now it is reported that the Stormont Attorney General John Larkin has offered advice that the employment tribunal's investigation was erroneous, its reasoning was flawed and the final judgement "riddled with errors" and "bordering on absurd".

He concludes that the tribunal's decision resulted from "poor fact-finding" combined with "serious flaws in reasoning".

A second legal opinion from two barristers points to "arguable errors of law" and states that "no reasonable tribunal properly directing itself could have reached the conclusions that this tribunal reached". All of this amounts to a serious conflict of opinion on an issue fundamental to the future of Northern Ireland and the Stormont administration.

Did Mr Murphy discriminate on religious grounds or did he not? Is it possible that within the new governance of this state, the same old tendencies which brought us to our knees in the past and which led to so much death and destruction between communities, still exists in Stormont's corridors?

When the original judgment was made against Mr Murphy, he said he hoped the Department of Regional Development would appeal within six weeks. The deadline has passed with the current minister, the Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy, rejecting any appeal on grounds that substantial legal costs would be incurred.

While that is understandable in the current economic climate, how will this matter be laid to rest reassuringly? The debate over Conor Murphy's selection methods is so crucially important that total transparency is required.

Given what we know now, Mr Kennedy has made the wrong decision even if he did so to save public funds. The credibility of Mr Murphy and Sinn Fein is at stake, but so also is that of the Equality Commission, the tribunal which investigated the former minister's behaviour, and even the Stormont Executive itself.

The stakes are too high on this issue for it to be brushed under any carpet.

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