Four siblings lose challenge over ban from membership of NUIG societies

Ban on Burke siblings did not amount to discrimination on religious grounds, judge rules

Four siblings have lost their legal challenge over a decision to bar them for life from membership of college societies at NUI Galway.

Isaac, Kezia, Ammi and Enoch Burke, all members of the Christian Union Society (CUS) in 2014, alleged discrimination contrary to the Equal Status Acts on grounds of religion. The college maintained the ban had nothing to do with religion.

The siblings went to the Circuit Court after a Workplace Relations Commission Adjudication Officer rejected their complaint of discrimination against them on grounds of religion.

While they had raised other grounds, they later said their substantive case would focus on their claim the lifetime disbarment of each of them from membership of college societies amounted to discrimination or victimisation on religious grounds.


The case was heard last month over three days at Galway Circuit Court.

In his judgment on Monday, Judge Raymond Groarke noted the case arose after NUIG's university society co-ordination group (USCG) imposed the ban in 2014 on the siblings from being members of college societies.

USCG said the ban arose because the Burkes distributed leaflets using the college logo which was against the college’s code of conduct and used college funds to pay for the leaflets and, by doing so, misrepresented the college. It also claimed they had shown no willingness to engage with an investigation committee and provided misleading information.

In 2014, they were involved in distributing leaflets seeking a no vote in a referendum advocating Boycott Divestment Sanction of Israel in the context of its dealings with the people of Palestine. They also distributed flyers against gay marriage which implicitly connected gay marriage to paedophilia and incest. Some fellow students had complained about the leaflets and flyers.

Judge Groarke was satisfied there were many procedural flaws in USCG’s handling of the matter and those were the result of “extraordinary and inexcusable” lack of knowledge of fair or proper procedures.

However, he could not accept the procedural flaws were so “egregious” they could only have been motivated by conduct and/or intention to discriminate against them because of their religious beliefs. While some members of USCG and its investigating committee vehemently disagree with some opinions of the Burkes, that disagreement was not influenced by dislike of their religion, he said.

There were “serious aggravating circumstances” in this case, he also held. Those included the failure of the Burkes to co-operate with the investigation, their efforts to hinder it, their failure to give a truthful account of matters, their fabrication of accounts and their misuse of CUS funds, he said.

CUS was the "fiefdom" of the four appellants who were its only officers in 2014 and had "omnipotent" power to dictate its policies, he said. Josiah Burke, a brother of the appellants, who had incurred leaflet expense on behalf of the Society, was reimbursed some €325 from its funds and there was no evidence other members of the Society authorised that, he said.

He said Isaac Burke had altered the society's account to conceal the fact the sum was paid from the CUS account to a person who was not a member of the CUS. That sum was eventually returned to the society.

He said the investigation by USCG, comprising elected student representatives and university employees, arising from the leaflets in 2014 ultimately recommended the four be disbarred from active membership of all societies.

Judge Groarke said the procedures adopted by USCG in imposing that “severe” sanction were unfair and contrary to proper procedures in many respects, including that some members of the investigating committee also took part in the vote on whether to disbar the siblings.

For reasons including the appeal was taken under equality legislation and the rules, “deficient as they were”, applied to all students and that this was not a case of judicial review, he concluded the sanction was within the rules and the errors by the college did not constitute discrimination on religious grounds.

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times