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Ex-terrorist Martin Neeson in line for payout as decision to ban him from job is quashed by High Court

By Alan Erwin

A High Court judge has quashed a decision to stop a terrorist murderer continuing work as a groundskeeper.

In a case brought by west Belfast man Martin Neeson, Mr Justice Maguire also held that when he was Finance and Personnel Minister, Peter Robinson breached the Ministerial Code.

He ruled that the Stormont department should now reconsider Mr Neeson's suitability for a job he worked for 19 years.

Lawyers for the 58-year-old declared the verdict a "resounding exoneration" for him and others in his position.

He is now expected to secure damages for his loss of employment.

Mr Neeson's Judicial Review challenge centred on an alleged failure to comply with guidance for employers on the recruitment of staff with Troubles-related convictions.

He was released from jail in 1987 after serving eleven-and-a-half years for a murder committed when he was aged 16. Mr Neeson has also convictions for belonging to a proscribed organisation and two counts of attempted murder.

Following his release, he secured groundskeeper work with a charity in the Poleglass area of Belfast. But due to a technical change in the body's contractual relationship with the Civil Service, he was required to undergo security vetting. Checks resulted in the Department of Finance and Personnel deciding in 2014 that he was unsuitable to continue in the role.

Mr Neeson went to Sinn Fein to seek their help in lobbying on his behalf. But after that proved unsuccessful, he issued proceedings against the department.

The ex-prisoner's legal team argued he was unlawfully deemed unsuitable for a job he had carried out for decades. They also contended the move was based on a decision taken by Mr Robinson during his tenure as Finance Minister that should have gone before the Executive.

The court heard the guidance was formulated as part of the Good Friday and St Andrew's political agreements, and adopted by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister before Mr Robinson decided that it should not apply.

It was claimed that, under Stormont rules, the then Finance Minister should have taken the issue to the Executive because it was significant, controversial and cut across departments.

Counsel for Mr Neeson said Sir Nigel Hamilton, a former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, appeared to be unaware the guidance had been revoked when he gave evidence to Stormont's Finance and Personnel Committee in 2012.

Ruling on the case yesterday, Mr Justice Maguire said the decision to disapply the May 2007 guidance clearly related to a controversial and/or significant matter - the reintegration of former prisoners with conflict-related convictions into employment.

He held that Mr Robinson had breached the Ministerial Code as the matter should have been brought before the Executive.

The judge added that he had no hesitation in concluding that the decision was one which no reasonable authority could lawfully have arrived at.

"Declaring the applicant unsuitable for employment flies in the face of being a rational decision," Mr Justice Maguire said.

On that basis, he quashed the decision and called on the department to reconsider the matter - ideally through an official with no previous involvement.

Outside court, Mr Neeson's solicitor, Niall Murphy of KRW Law, said: "This judgment is a resounding exoneration for the citizenship rights of the ex-political prisoner community."

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