Monday 19 August 2019

Removal of all portraits of the Queen after offended civil servant awarded €11,150 damages 'may open floodgates'

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II (Tolga Akmen/PA)
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II (Tolga Akmen/PA)

Lauren Harte

A decision by the Northern Ireland Office to remove all portraits of the Queen from Stormont House could "open the floodgates" to more compensation claims, a solicitor has warned.

It follows claims that a civil servant received £10,000 (€11,150) in compensation after complaining that he was offended by portraits of the monarch in the NIO's Belfast headquarters.

Former Ulster Unionist MP Lord Maginnis made the allegations in the House of Lords last month.

However, last night Secretary of State Julian Smith revealed there is a photograph of the Queen in his office at Stormont House. But Richard Clements from Tully Clements solicitors warned yesterday that the NIO's decision could lead to further claims from people offended by the portraits being removed.

"Will people claim compensation because they are offended that the pictures of the Queen are now removed? The answer to that is, probably," he said.

"Until a judge makes a binding decision on the specific issue of pictures of the Queen in the workplace, employers and employees are going to be in limbo as to where they stand from a legal point of view.

"Reasonableness and common sense should apply in the meantime and, if in doubt, they should seek independent legal advice."

Lord Maginnis said the latest move by the NIO has offended a whole section of the community.

He added: "It is making us here in Northern Ireland fundamentally different to the rest of the United Kingdom. However, I'm not surprised, as for some considerable time I have endured parliamentary answers coming from the NIO where one asks a question and is not given a straightforward answer.

"We have had to put up with this during the tenure of the last three Secretaries of State and it's largely why I decided to reveal the depth of conspiracy that exists in the NIO. There is no one accountable in the NIO, and that is from the top (the Secretary of State) down."

Referring to the latest NIO decision to remove all photographs, he added: "There is also a groundswell of absolute disgust, not just in Northern Ireland but also in Parliament, over the insulting behaviour by senior civil servants and it's something that I'm not going to put up with." Lord Maginnis said in light of yesterday developments, it was clear that senior civil servants would need "fundamental retraining".

UUP leader Robin Swann raised the matter with the Prime Minister during his visit to Stormont House yesterday and said Boris Johnson "looked puzzled" when told there is no portrait of the Queen on the walls.

Lord Empey, who was among the UUP delegation, said: "He clearly wasn't aware of it... he was clearly a bit surprised, is how I would put it.

"There was no definitive response from him, but the matter was squarely laid on the table and we shall see what emerges.

"I think both he and the new Secretary of State will be on a steep learning curve to understand the nuances of Northern Ireland." Lord Empey said he "does not think it is unreasonable" for a portrait of the head of state to hang on the walls of a Government department.

"I think many people would have been shocked that this matter has arisen at all. It's rather bizarre, to put it mildly," he added.

South Antrim DUP MP Paul Girvan said the "shameful decision" by the NIO had caused "grave offence" and further represented the "hurt and growing anger at the continuing 'war on Britishness' being exercised by republicans".

Mr Girvan said: "The revelation that the NIO has banned all portraits of the Queen from their buildings is grossly offensive and disrespectful to many people here in Northern Ireland.

"This spineless decision by NIO mandarins, and many others used to erode our British identity in this part of the United Kingdom, is the outworking of the so-called 'equality agenda' that lies at the heart of the Belfast Agreement, heralded as the 'Trojan horse' to 'break' unionists by Gerry Adams."

TUV leader Jim Allister said the stripping of all royal photographs and portraits from Stormont House was "shameful" and something that needed to be addressed urgently by the new Secretary of State.

South Down SDLP MLA Colin McGrath said Northern Ireland has many more important and pressing matters to be paying attention to, such as Brexit and re-establishing the Executive.

He added: "Those matters being resolved would do more to improve relations here than the putting up and taking down of pictures.

"We are not going to be in a good position whenever we are weaponising symbols and pictures here - that means we have got to a very dangerous place."

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said his party had "no issue with portraits of the Queen being tactfully and tastefully placed in what is a Government building".

The Equality Commission said it was unable to comment on individual cases.

A spokesperson added: "The Equality Commission has, for many years, given advice to employers on issues around the wearing or display of emblems in the workplace, and the implications this can have for maintaining good and harmonious relations.

"Tribunal decisions have identified some practices that are or may be unacceptable.

"However, each case needs to be dealt with on its own facts.

"The commission recognises that it is important to reflect on the purpose and function of an organisation.

"However, it would not be acceptable for such an environment to be threatening, hostile or unwelcome for employees."

Belfast Telegraph

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