Huge legal bill after bias case is dropped

CRAIGAVON Borough Council is pursuing three of its senior staff for legal costs running into tens of thousands of pounds after they suddenly withdrew allegations of discrimination.

Claims were originally brought against 10 individuals, as well as the council in general, but the number had been reduced to two.

However, these cases were also withdrawn on Tuesday, the day before they were due to be heard by the Northern Ireland Industrial Tribunal in Belfast.

A statement from the Civic Centre said, “The council vehemently denies the allegations made by the claimants and had fully prepared the case for contest. We have now directed our legal advisors to make an application for costs against the claimants as the costs involved are substantial, running into tens of thousands of pounds.”

The allegations of religious, political and sexual discrimination began in April 6, 2011, and the 10 individuals included three chief executives, three council members - two of them current MLAs - and two staff members, one now retired.

Four high-ranking officers originally brought the allegations - Martin Towe from the Lough Neagh Discovery Centre, Paddy Prunty, harbour master at Kinnego Marina, Kieran Cahoon, head of parks, and Declan Brown, manager of water sports and the golf-ski centre. Mr Towe withdrew his allegation in September 2011.

The original list of individuals against whom the allegations were made comprised chief executive Theresa Donaldson; former chief executive Francis Rock; former interim chief executive Michael Docherty; Samuel Gardiner and Dolores Kelly (both former councillors and now MLAs); Councillor George Savage (former MLA); Philip Heaton who prepared ‘The Heaton Report’ on leisure services for the council; Bronagh Slevin, director of corporate services, staff member Kirsty Pinkerton, still with the council’s environmental services, and Noel McClelland, retired principal administrative officer in leisure services.

In December 2011, six cases were withdrawn - Donaldson, Rock, Docherty, Kelly, Heaton and Slevin. And a few weeks ago, the Gardiner and Savage cases were also withdrawn, leaving McClelland and Pinkerton, along with the general allegations against the council, to face the tribunal.

Paddy Prunty, Kieran Cahoon and Declan Brown were not available for comment - all were said to be on leave - while Kirsty Pinkerton did not want to comment.

Mr McClelland, though, said he was relieved that the case had been withdrawn, adding that he had served 45 years in the public sector, and totally refuted any suggestion of discrimination against anyone. He added, “These allegations hurt me personally and my family. When I retired in March 2008, tributes were paid by councillors of every political persuasion to my work, service and dedication to the council. I have an unblemished record, having worked for Lurgan Rural Council, Craigavon Development Commission, the Housing Executive and Craigavon Borough Council.

“I enjoyed every moment of my public service, and these unfounded allegation have been a source of great annoyance at the end of my career. Quite rightly, they have been dropped.”