AS Craigavon Borough Council prepares its claim to recoup the massive legal bill associated with a withdrawn “discrimination” case, nationalist and unionist councillors have described the entire situation as “ill-conceived and ludicrous”.
Dolores Kelly MLA (SDLP) and Councillor George Savage (UUP) were both among the original 10 individuals being pursued by senior council staff members in claims of “religious, political and sexual discrimination”. The numbers had finally been reduced to two - Noel McClelland, retired principal officer with leisure services, and Kirsty Pinkerton, senior officer in environmental services, both Protestants.
The case, which began in April 2011, was due to be heard on Wednesday of last week. But on the Tuesday, the claimants dropped all charges against Mr McClelland and Mrs Pinkerton. Mrs Kelly and Mr Savage have staunchly defended the final two, claiming that “neither has a discriminatory bone in their body”.
Said Mrs Kelly, “They showed a total lack of bias and total loyalty to Francis Rock, the council’s first-ever Roman Catholic chief executive during the time that he received a bullet and death threat through the post in November 2006.” Mr Rock was off with stress for a year, was suspended on full pay and ultimately left the council with a substantial pay-off.
Mrs Kelly added, “Those were controversial years in the council, with the issue taken up in the Assembly and an interim CEO being appointed (Michael Docherty from Scotland being flown in and out each week).
“Francis Rock, Michael Docherty and Theresa Donaldson (all Roman Catholics) were all on the original ‘discrimination list’ brought by the three senior officers, and Noel and Kirsty remained loyal to their CEOs all along, doing their job professionally and without bias.”
Mr Savage underlined that Mr McClelland had worked with the late Ignatius Fox (SDLP) on several projects, “and they became firm friends, their first priory being the good of the entire community. There was a great rapport between the two of them, but that’s just an example of how Noel - and Kirsty - went about their jobs. These allegations were ludicrous and I can’t understand how they were brought in the first place.”
The council isn’t making any further comment, pending the preparation of the claim to recoup the legal fees. But a statement from the Civic Centre underlined, “Craigavon Borough Council can confirm that claims were brought against the council, elected members and employees in relation to alleged discrimination. Council vehemently denied the allegations made by the claimants and had fully prepared a case for contest.
“On the day prior to the full hearing, the claimants withdrew their claims against Craigavon Borough Council and other people named. Council has now directed their legal advisors to make an application for costs against the claimants as the costs involved are substantial, running into tens of thousands of pounds.”
Meanwhile Mrs Pinkerton is making no comment, while Mr McClelland said that the withdrawal “of a case that should never have been taken” was a great relief to him and his family. “I have 45 unblemished years in the public sector,” he said, “in Lurgan Rural District Council, Craigavon Development Commission and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and there has never been a whisper of discrimination against me.”
The three claimants have not been available for comment as their departments said they were on leave.