An organisation which plays a key role in distributing public money to community organisations in Derry has been found guilty of discriminating against a local man because of his opposition to what he characterised as a “Sinn Fein/DUP carve-up” of community organisation in the city.
The Waterside Neighbourhood Partnership (WNP) has been ordered by a Fair Employment Tribunal to pay Gary McClean £10,000 compensation for denying him a job as a Community Development Officer (CDO) in the Curryneirin area despite his having been the only candidate to achieve the required score at interview.
WNP directors’ explanations for McClean’s rejection were dismissed by the Tribunal as “unconvincing,” “deliberately misleading,” “making absolutely no sense,” etc.
The Tribunal also made trenchant criticism – “evasive,” “not credible” – of an official of the Department of Social Development (now the Department of Communities) who had sat in on the short-listing and interview processes.
The Tribunal heard sworn testimony from 10 witnesses over four days last December. The report was published on February 20th.
A decision was made by the DSD in March 2014 that funding for the Curryneirin CDO position would be routed through the WNP, rather than, as previously with community positions, through the Curryneirin Community Association (CCA).
McClean insisted that the DSD’s recognition of the WNP as “official” representative of the Curryneirin community for funding purposes was part of the process of dividing disadvantaged areas between the two main parties.
Neighbourhood Partnerships were set up in 2004 across the most deprived 10 percent of wards in the North. The DSD ruled at the time that, “It is neither possible nor appropriate for DSD to specify in detail what mechanisms should be put in place locally – the structure of the NP’s (sic.) may differ from one Neighbourhood Renewal area to another and arrangements made at local level should reflect local needs and structures.”
The has been no requirement on NPs for conformity with any particular model or mode of operation.
The Tribunal reported that, “(McClean) describes himself as a socialist, who is critical of Sinn Fein and who is critical of what he alleges is an agenda between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party to carve up influence (and funding) between themselves in segregated areas.”
The nub of McClean’s complaint was that it was on account of these views that he was rejected for the Curryneirin post.
A former chairman of the CCA, Stephen Gallagher, told the Tribunal that community organisation in Curryneirin had managed to remain independent of “any political organisations” for the past 15 years. However, he said that he had felt “harassed” by Alison Wallace, strategy manager and director of the WNP, to invite representatives of Sinn Fein to CCA meetings.
Having obtained DSD funding, the WNP advertised the Curryneirin job in April 2015. Three applicants were selected for interview. The interviews took place on 5 June 2015, before a panel comprising three WNP directors – strategy manager Wallace and WNP co-chairs Geraldine Doherty and William Lamrock. DSD official Geraldine Boggs sat in and took notes.
When the interview scores were totted up, only McClean had reached the set threshold of 59 marks from a possible 70. Each of the panel members signed a document recording the marks of each applicant. The marks were then collated. The collated document referred to McClean as the “person appointed.” The following month, however, McClean was told that he had not been appointed, that the competition was being re-run. McClean did not apply a second time but instead lodged his complaint.
Both Wallace and Doherty suggested to the Tribunal that they had been pressurised by Lamrock into giving McClean higher marks than they otherwise would and that this had later made them uneasy. Doherty said that she had been made to feel “very uncomfortable” during the interviews. Wallace said that Lamrock “can be unpleasant at times…is very overbearing and…can cause difficulties for you.”
Both women also suggested that Lamrock had boosted his own marks for McClean because they had had a previous working relationship.
The Tribunal pointed out in its report that none of these complaints had been made at the time or immediately afterwards, but had appeared for the first time in witness statements to the Tribunal.
“This suggests that this allegation (of favouritism), like the allegation of bullying, is something that has only occurred to Ms. Wallace and Ms. Doherty relatively recently.”
Following signing of the collation sheet, the three panellists had continued discussion. Lamrock was first to leave. He was explicit to the Tribunal that he had departed in the clear belief that the matter had been concluded – McClean had been appointed.
It was then that Wallace and Doherty’s concerns appear to have emerged. The Tribunal reported: “It appears that despite the clear markings recorded by Ms. Doherty and Ms. Wallace and despite the clear terms of the collation sheet, those two interview panel members for some reason had decided that the claimant was not to be appointed.”
DSD representative Boggs testified that she had not been aware at the end of the process that McClean had been appointed. She had not seen the individual scoring sheets or observed the compilation of the “collation” sheet noting McClean as the “person appointed.”
The Tribunal commented: “She had been sitting at the same table as the interview panel and yet claims not to have seen the completion and signing of the collation sheet. Completion and signing of that sheet must have taken some minutes.”
The Tribunal described the DSD official’s evidence on this point as “simply not credible.”
Boggs said that Lamrock had been “quite forthright,” “vocal” and “wanted a higher score.” In contrast, the “two girls were quieter.” Asked why she had not previously mentioned this if she’d thought it significant, she replied, “I did not think it was my role.”
The Tribunal commented: “Again, this evidence is not credible. Given the expenditure of public funds, her role had been to act as an observer on behalf of DSD…If bullying or favouritism had taken place, it had been her role to report it. She did not. She did not even make any adverse comment in her notes, which she had then destroyed anyway.”
Asked whether there could be any interpretation of the signed collation sheet other than the obvious – that McClean had won top marks and had been appointed – Boggs replied, “probably not.”
“That response was evasive,” said the Tribunal. “No other interpretation of the collation sheet was possible. Her answer should have been a straightforward ‘No.’”
Boggs said in evidence that she had destroyed her notes immediately after the interviews. The Tribunal noted that, “She was unable to explain the purpose of destroying the notes.”
Another WNP director, Karen Mullan, gave evidence that, shortly after the day of the interviews, Doherty had told her that she had “concerns” about the interviews. The Tribunal noted that these concerns of Doherty’s had not been mentioned by Mullan until cross-examination before the Tribunal.
Mullan is a member of Sinn Fein. She is also manager of the main community group in the Nationalist Top of the Hill area of the Waterside.
The weeks following the interviews saw a furry of emails between Mullan, the three panel members, and another WNP director, Linda Watson.
On June 12, Lamrock wrote: “We need to call a meeting of the Company as there are risks and issues for us in this matter.” No such meeting was held. The Tribunal commented that, “If such a meeting had been held, there could have been a full discussion between Mr. Lamrock and the other two interview panel members.”
Wallace wrote to Doherty and Lamrock again on July 6, making the point that “two of the panel had major concerns.” Lamrock replied: “The recruitment was run and scoring completed…This brought an end to the process…”
On the following day, Mullan wrote again to the three interviewers, Lamrock, Doherty and Wallace: “If two out of three interviewers are not happy with the candidate I think we should go back out to re-advertisement.”
Lamrock wrote back: “There was a successful candidate. Now for that decision to be overturned there must be a strong reason based on fact that will stand up to scrutiny. Otherwise the company would open itself to risk. I am not prepared to do that. This is public funds…”
Told that he had not been appointed, McClean asked for the interview notes. However, the Tribunal recorded, the notes forwarded by Wallace “had a significant part removed without any indication that that part had been removed. In particular, that part recording the setting of the threshold marking of 59 marks and the blank space where the interviewers would have completed their names…(Wallace’s) only explanation was that she had been advised that the names of the interviewers should not be related directly to each scoring sheet. However, since the place for the names had been blank…there was absolutely no reason for the deletion other than the obvious reason of avoiding telling the claimant that the threshold marking had been set at 59 marks and that therefore he had exceeded the threshold mark.”
The Tribunal described Wallace’s evidence on this point as “unconvincing and evasive.”
Another WNP director, Linda Watson, told the Tribunal that a few days after the interviews she had been informed of the concerns of Wallace and Doherty. But, the Tribunal recorded, “At no stage had she asked for sight of the collation sheet or for any of the documentation…She merely stated that she had taken it that ‘what Ms. Wallace told me was the truth.’”
The Tribunal declared: “In short, Ms. Watson’s evidence was not credible.”
Watson is a prominent campaigner for the DUP in Derry. She is a senior community coordinator in the Unionist Caw/Nelson Drive area.
Doherty accepted in cross-examination that she had been an active member of Sinn Fein in the Mountainview area of the Waterside, where McClean, too, lived: “She stated however that she knew very little about him. That was unconvincing. This had been a small area in a small city where both individuals had been involved in community work for lengthy periods.”
One implication of Doherty knowing little about McClean would have been that she couldn’t, then, have held his political views against him. Doherty is a former secretary of the SF branch which covers Mountainview.
Doherty repeatedly insisted that she had no knowledge of the North West Social Forum (NWSF), of which McClean had been coordinator. She was “absolutely sure” that she had never heard of this organisation. She was then shown a copy of McClean’s job application in which his employment by the NWSF between 2002 and 2005 was highlighted under the heading “relevant experience.” She explained that she had read “most of” the application, but “not in any real detail.” She agreed that she had had the application form in front of her during the interview.
The Tribunal found it “not credible” that Doherty had not read that part of the application form which referred to relevant experience. This was “particularly implausible” given that “she now states that she had been concerned about the claimant’s experience.”
McClean believes that part at least of the reason his experience with the NWSF had been ignored or had counted against him was that Sinn Fein at the time didn’t accept the PSNI as a legitimate police force and objected to the NWSF working and liaising with the force.
“They’d have known from then that I couldn’t be counted on to fall into line.”