Tuesday 19 June 2018

Government minister urges John Halligan to pay €7.5k compensation bill himself in discrimination case

Mr Halligan said he intended to appeal the decision of the WRC

John Halligan, Independent TD for Waterford. Photo: Tom Burke
John Halligan, Independent TD for Waterford. Photo: Tom Burke

John Downing, Niall O'Connor and Philip Ryan

The Government has been challenged to say whether junior education minister, John Halligan, will pay the €7,500 fine levied on taxpayers because he broke anti-discrimination laws.

Michael Ring, Minister for Rural and Community Development, told Today with Sean O'Rourke on RTÉ Radio 1 that Mr Halligan "should pay the bill himself".

"I think he should make a cheque out to the Department. I think he should pay the bill.

"I think they should forget about the trip (to North Korea)."

Labour leader, Brendan Howlin, said there was a danger of a double-standard emerging in government practices relating to charges incurred by ministers.

The former Public Expenditure Minister cited the case of current Social Protection Minister, Regina Doherty, who through no fault of hers was wrongly paid a special allowance as a junior minister.

Mr Howlin said Minister Doherty later had to pay back that money out of her own pocket.

The Labour leader called upon the Government to formally apologise to the woman civil servant involved.  She was judged by the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) to have been wrongly asked family-related questions by Mr Halligan at a job interview.

The WRC ruled the Independent Alliance Minister should not have asked the woman concerned if she was married and had children during an interview for a job as his private secretary.

Mr Howlin said it was extraordinary that a government minister should put such a question some 20 years after laws banned it. He noted that Mr Halligan’s responsibilities also included equality laws.

Replying for the Government, Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, said Mr Halligan had already acknowledged that he was in the wrong and had apologised.

But she formally apologised in the Dáil to the woman on behalf of the Government.

“We certainly regret what happened and accept the WRC decision,” Ms Fitzgerald said.

The Tánaiste said according to the law the fine involved was the responsibility of the Education Department.  But she would await Mr Halligan’s response on the entire issue when he returned next Sunday from a work trip overseas.

Speaking to the Irish Independent from Thailand last night, Mr Halligan said he is considering making an appeal of the decision of the WRC.

But Labour Party TD Seán Sherlock called on Mr Halligan to consider his position.

A Fine Gael TD for Dublin Bay South, Kate O’Connell, said she was both “disgusted” and “disappointed” by Mr Halligan’s actions.

“Most people would believe such questioning belongs in the dark ages, not in modern professional workplaces,” Ms O’Connell said.

“If any employer is ever in any doubt as to whether they’re asking something inappropriate of a woman in an interview, they should simply ask themselves, ‘Would I ask a man this? Have I asked men this?’”

Several Fine Gael ministers privately expressed their disgust last night, but did not wish to speak on the record.

But Fianna Fáil’s equality spokesperson Fiona O’Loughlin accused the minister of asking questions of an interviewee that are no longer permitted.

“It has been against the law to ask questions like this at interviews since 1998 and John should have been aware of this particularly when he was on an interview board as a minister of State. While he may not have been trying to offend, what he asked was deeply offensive,” she told the Irish Independent.

The WRC ruling found the executive officer, who has been employed by the civil service since 1993, applied for one of two posts of private secretary in May 2016 to two junior Government ministers in the same department.

At the interview, Mr Halligan said to the official: “I shouldn’t be asking you this, but... are you a married woman? Do you have children? How old are your children?”

The female official answered the questions and confirmed that she was married and that she was the mother of two children, indicating their ages.

In reply, Mr Halligan observed:

“You must be very busy”.

In her ruling, which found that the woman was discriminated against, WRC adjudication officer Penelope McGrath found the junior minister’s comments to be “so outmoded”.

She said: “It was ill-advised of the Minister of State to have so pointedly obtained information that had nothing to do with this candidate’s suitability for a position and a position for which she had determined she was eligible to compete.”

Last night Mr Halligan said he was “upset” by the ruling as he feels he runs a “family friendly” office.

“I was simply trying to put the interviewee at ease. I wanted to assure her that I am as flexible as possible with members of my team with any external or non-work commitments they may have,” Mr Halligan told this newspaper.

“All of my staff start at 10am because they need to get their kids to school and can finish early if they need to. I’m upset in the sense I genuinely didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. Sometimes I am wrong but I operate a family friendly environment,” he added.

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