Flanagan named in case taken on grounds of religious bias

 

A former member of the RUC has won a case of religious discrimination and victimisation, with Sir Ronnie Flanagan named among the respondents.

The case, taken by Mr James Willis, who applied for the position of Assistant Chief Constable in 1998, went before a Fair Employment Tribunal late last month.

It found that Mr Willis, who was a chief superintendent, had been discriminated against by the arrangements used to decide on the promotion.

Sir Ronnie, who was chief constable until March this year, is named in the action, as is the Police Authority for Northern Ireland and Mr Colin Smith.

The authority preceded the Policing Board, which was formally set up last November, and Mr Smith is a member of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) which performs an advisory role in certain police appointments.

The tribunal found that Mr Willis suffered discrimination on religious grounds - he is a "born-again Christian" - and victimised him following another fair employment complaint he made in 1996.

It also found that Sir Ronnie provided assessments of candidates to HMIC, in this case Mr Smith, and also to a short-listing panel and the interview panel. He also provided comment on interview performance and, according to the panel, was consulted on the proposed recommendation of the panel. The tribunal had "serious reservation" about this level of involvement from the same chief constable at various stages of the process.

It was concerned at Sir Ronnie's involvement "in assessing the degree to which a candidate has the qualities necessary for the post, and then in commentating thereafter upon interview performance knowing that the panel will rely also upon his assessment."

The tribunal said it found the respondents to have discriminated against Mr Willis "because of the unascertainable extent to which they relied on the chief constable's assessment".

It added: "We believe that the applicant did not fit the mould desired by the chief constable in an assistant chief constable, and but for his religious beliefs and his 1996 complaint he would have fitted that mould." The tribunal added: "Our finding in relation to the chief constable is fatal to the entire exercise."

The current recruitment process to fill two assistant chief constable vacancies has been suspended by the Policing Board following the judgment. Board members are seeking legal advice before continuing.

The Equality Commission has welcomed the decision. Ms Petra Sheils, director of legal services at the commission, said it reinforced the need for employers not to treat applicants less favourably on the grounds that they had raised discrimination issues in the past.