The Northern Ireland Office has removed all portraits of the Queen from its Belfast headquarters, the News Letter can reveal.
Last night the NIO refused to explain why as a department in Her Majesty’s Government it was refusing to allow the display of the head of state’s picture.
Three weeks ago, Lord Maginnis told the House of Lords that senior NIO civil servant Lee Hegarty had been paid £10,000 in compensation for being offended at having to walk past portraits of the head of state and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh.
The peer said that the portraits had then been removed, with Mr Hegarty having been consulted about what should replace them and having suggested photos, one of which was of the Queen meeting Martin McGuinness.
But those photos have now gone from Stormont House.
The News Letter understands that during the General Election period in summer 2017 all photos of the Queen were removed from the building in the Stormont Estate.
A politician who was in Stormont House this week said that the only pictures which they could see on display were landscapes. It is not clear who took the decision or what the rationale for it was.
At the time of Lord Maginnis’s comments, the NIO did not comment in detail on what he has said. It responded in a brief statement: “We will not comment on individual personnel matters.”
Then, when the story was reported by the media, the NIO’s most senior official, Sir Jonathan Stephens, emailed staff to say that “stories such as this are particularly unhelpful” and that staff should feel free to raise concerns. In a copy of the email seen by the BBC, Sir Jonathan said: “As civil servants we all take protection of personal and other information very seriously and... we are investigating how this happened and what further action is needed in this case.”
The issue led to Ulster Unionist peer Lord Rogan tabling a series of House of Lords questions in relation to what Lord Maginnis had said.
He asked the government to set out the criteria used to determine which portraits are displayed or removed from NIO buildings and to clarify the facts around what Lord Maginnis had told peers.
In response, NIO minister Lord Duncan seemed to hint at the rationale for the decision to remove the pictures of the Queen although he did not explicitly say that they had been taken down.
He said: “The Northern Ireland Office takes its responsibilities under Fair Employment legislation very seriously and seeks to ensure a good and harmonious working environment for all staff; the requirements of which are set out in the 1989 Fair Employment Code of Practice.
“In line with the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland’s Guide, Promoting a Good and Harmonious Working Environment, the Northern Ireland Office is sensitive to the display of ‘posters, pictures, portraits or other displays that are more closely associated with one or other of the communities’ and will consider any concerns raised by employees. I can confirm that the department takes steps to ensure no such images are displayed in Stormont House.
“Information on employees’ personal data is sensitive, in order to comply with Data Protection Act requirements, and so I am unable to comment further.”
Lord Rogan said that he believed the answer was “light on detail and conspicuously avoids answering my original questions”.
He said that the response “would seem to confirm that Royal portraits have been removed from Stormont House. If true, this is outrageous. It is political correctness gone mad.
“The vast majority of people will – like me – be wondering just how we have reached the ridiculous stage where a government department - the NIO - feels it cannot display a portrait of the Head of State”
He added: “The NIO is an office of Her Majesty`s Government and to suggest that a portrait of the Queen or Royal Family cannot be displayed within its walls demonstrates how much the mandarins who run the NIO have lost the run of themselves in a foolish attempt to appease republicanism. I will continue to ask further questions to get to the bottom of this.”
It is understood that the portraits of the Queen were hung in Stormont House around 2012. At that time the then Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, had asked that Royal portraits which were being removed from Hillsborough Castle were brought to Stormont House because it had no portrait of the head of state.
When asked whether a portrait of the Queen could be unlawful under equality law, the Equality Commission directed the News Letter to two Fair Employment Tribunal decisions from 2000 and 2002 which found that Belfast City Council had discriminated against two Catholic workers whose workplaces had displayed portraits of the Queen. However, the commission stressed that the facts of each case had to be taken into consideration.
The Equality Commission said that its advice “makes it clear that it is for each employer to reach its own informed decision on these issues with regard to its equality policies and also regarding individual circumstances and the context in which it is operating”.
It added: “Tribunal decisions have identified some practices that are or may be unacceptable. However each case needs to 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. We are unable to comment on this individual case.”
The News Letter asked the NIO a series of questions around the issue, including whether new Secretary of State Julian Smith stood over the removal of the Royal pictures.
The NIO said: “The government takes its obligation under fair employment legislation very seriously. We will not comment on individual personnel matters, nor will not comment on the specific comments made by Lord Rogan”.