Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

Editor's Viewpoint: Sacking protest went much too far

The case of William Hunter, the man sacked and then reinstated by supermarket giant Asda in a row over a throwaway remark, demonstrates the sensitivities over perceived sectarian comments in the workplace.

Mr Hunter apparently told a driver in the Belfast store's carpark, who was playing music in his van, that he should be playing The Sash.

In any other community, such a quip would pass unnoticed, but a customer was offended and reported him to the company. Some people may feel that the company over-reacted, but it was correct in taking the matter seriously given that a complaint was made. Legislation governing sectarianism in the workplace was introduced in Northern Ireland for valid historical reasons, and every company should take due note of incidents which could be in breach of the rules.

Other questions need to be asked about the reaction to the dismissal of Mr Hunter. A virtual blockade of the store was mounted by a large number of people, preventing customers, on at least one occasion, entering the store carpark. While there may have been local concerns, the protests went too far, leading to a perception of intimidation of customers.

How was this protest allowed to continue? Were police sufficiently robust in their reaction to the blockade? Were protestors warned about their behaviour, and if the protest was illegal, what action will the police now take?

Asda, the UK's second biggest grocer, is part of American retail giant Wal-Mart, and the negative image of Northern Ireland portrayed by this protest could have international reprecussions.

Hopefully the company and its employee will be able to draw a line under this incident and get back to its proper business of serving the retailing needs of customers. At a time of economic recession, Northern Ireland needs as many thriving businesses as possible.

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