THE Deputy First Minister shaking the hand of the sovereign is without doubt a momentous occasion in Northern Ireland’s history.
The peace process having objectively concluded some years ago, it remains to be seen if Sinn Fein can dream up some new milestone with which they can pretend to stretch out “the process”.
There is an argument that they have only come to this point embarrassing themselves being so gratuitously churlish about refusing to meet the Queen on her visit to the Republic of Ireland last year. There are also perfectly fair comments to be made about it being the final surrender of Sinn Fein’s core ideology.
In a famous scene from a 1981 episode of Yes Minister, Sir Humphrey Appleby parodied German participation in what is now the European Union as an “effort to cleanse themselves of genocide and apply for readmission to the human race”.
There is a certain parallel that could be drawn, but the direction of travel is positive. That fact alone is enough to allow the contradictions to slide, for now.
What that event has served to mask, however, is last week’s judicial finding of fact that, on the balance of probabilities, a Sinn Fein minister made a discriminatory public appointment, and in his four years in office made a uniquely unbalanced set of appointments.
The tribunal’s findings of fact are damning for Conor Murphy. For example, “The tribunal finds that for a four-year period between 2007-2011, when the minister was in charge of DRD, there was a significant disparity between the success rates of Protestant applicants and Catholic applicants within DRD, and that a Catholic applicant was at least twice as likely to be appointed than a Protestant applicant. Statistics for other government departments show a ratio at or close to 1:1. The tribunal is satisfied that there was a material bias against the appointment of candidates from a Protestant background within DRD.”
Were the words ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ to be switched throughout that paragraph, and a unionist minister implicated, it would doubtless make international news. Sinn Fein would, entirely fairly, turn it into a constitutional crisis.
The number of times the tribunal found that Murphy’s evidence “lacks credibility” on a given point is startling. They found it “implausible” that the local MP was utterly clueless as to the religious background of a man called Sean Hogan from Newry. On the grounds of Dr Alan Lennon’s claim, the tribunal found that Murphy added three criteria to his decision-making in order to secure Sean Hogan’s appointment, which was desired because Hogan was known to Sinn Fein ministers, and because he was not a Protestant.
It is nothing short of outrageous.
Conor Murphy has demanded that the department appeal the decision.
One assumes that the Permanent Secretary (we live in a British system of government, meaning the current minister does not take decisions pertinent to his predecessor’s time in office) will meet with legal representatives to discuss an appeal, and he will be told that these findings of fact are not appealable.
An appeal can only be made on points of law, not findings of fact. Of course findings of fact could be so irrational as to create a point of law on which to appeal, but the decision in Lennon v DRD is extremely well reasoned, and on the face of it not the least bit irrational.
In fairness to Sinn Fein, the tribunal seem to have concluded that statistically there appears to only have been any issue with DRD appointments.
However it was admitted by the department that Murphy consulted with Michelle Gildernew and Caitriona Ruane about Mr Hogan (and not any other candidate) on the same day he formally decided to appoint him. Why were a group of ministers from the same party discussing such an appointment? If that is normal behaviour it shouldn’t be.
The entire sorry affair calls into question every public appointment ever made by a Sinn Fein minister on grounds of equality. Were it anywhere else in the democratic world, there would be public outcry. Why is Northern Ireland different?
On April 21, 2009, Conor Murphy lectured: “The promotion of equality is not an optional extra...Equality is not an add-on accessory or an expedient tick-box exercise.” He was quite right.
Michael Shilliday is a former Ulster Unionist researcher. He is currently based in London.