Silence on religious discrimination case is worrying


A job tribunal finding against former SF minister Conor Murphy was barely reported on in southern media

WHILE THE media in the Republic was busy working itself into a lather over last week’s special Sinn Féin ardchomhairle meeting (regardless of the fact that Martin McGuinness had been signalling for months that he would meet the queen), it was allowing another story on the North to slip by with hardly a mention.

Last Wednesday, an employment tribunal in Belfast ruled that while he was Northern Ireland’s regional development minister, Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy discriminated against Alan Lennon, a candidate for the post of chairman of Northern Ireland Water, because Lennon was a Protestant.

Murphy decided to appoint a Catholic, Seán Hogan, on the basis “he was not from a Protestant background”. The tribunal also found that before making his decision, Murphy had consulted his former Sinn Féin ministerial colleagues Michelle Gildernew and Caitríona Ruane and added new criteria to the selection process “in order to secure Mr Hogan’s appointment”.

According to the tribunal, this was not an isolated incident. It found that during Murphy’s time as development minister, between 2007 and 2011, within his department there was a “material bias against the appointment of candidates from a Protestant background”.

Murphy has rejected the tribunal’s findings, and his former department may appeal.

Sinn Féin issued a terse denial of any wrongdoing on Murphy’s part and shifted its attention to the then upcoming royal visit. One can imagine the party’s reaction if a similarly damning indictment had been issued against a unionist minister.

Ordinarily, no one could blame Sinn Féin for trying to deflect attention away from a bad news story: there isn’t a political party on the planet that doesn’t do the same. This applies also to its milking of McGuinness’s meeting with the queen (which was indeed historic and would have been presented as such by Sinn Féin in any circumstances). And if the media was daft enough to get over-excited about last week’s ardchomhairle meeting, that’s hardly the fault of the political party.

Nor, I believe, would it be fair to tarnish Sinn Féin as sectarian because of the discriminatory practices of one of its most senior members (albeit that two other senior members, also former ministers, were found by the tribunal to have had some involvement in the Alan Lennon case).

Martin McGuinness and others within Sinn Féin have done much to build relationships with unionists and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and it would be a travesty if the actions of a few colleagues were allowed undermine their work.

However, it is one thing to downplay bad news, but quite another to offhandedly dismiss such serious findings against a former Executive minister. There can be no excuse for Sinn Féin not suspending Murphy (and possibly his two colleagues) from its ranks pending the outcome of any appeal, with a view to expulsion. This is a party, after all, that claims to be wedded to the union of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, as envisaged by Wolfe Tone, (even if its spokespeople do constantly misquote the United Irishman).

Although far from commendable, Sinn Féin’s reasoning is at least clear. What, however, explains the near universal silence of the southern media on the findings against Murphy? Regardless of the commotion about the queen’s visit, it is hard to imagine that most southern journalists and editors did not notice what virtually all of their northern counterparts were running as a lead story.

It was surely not the case that room could not be found for two Sinn Féin-related stories last week. Perhaps the media genuinely felt that a “historic” handshake with the queen was of more import than a former minister and his department being found to have serially discriminated on religious grounds, even though it was precisely this type of activity that ignited the Troubles.

In truth, no matter what excuse one tries to conjure up, it is hard to escape the suspicion that, historic handshake or not, Sinn Féin never had much to worry about as far as the southern media is concerned.

Discrimination against Protestants (particularly in a northern context) doesn’t fit very well with a well-honed nationalist/republican self-view and historical construct, so best just ignore it, would appear to be the widespread attitude.

Aside from it amounting to a clear dereliction of duty, the media seems to have forgotten where this attitude has led in the past. It’s all very well for journalists to daily lambast the likes of the Catholic Church, politicians, bankers and property developers, but where was the vast bulk of journalism when the offending institutions and individuals were at the height of their powers and needed to be held to account?

They were purposely shielding mythologies against realities. It is highly unlikely that discriminating against Protestants will cost Sinn Féin many votes in the North. However, the party is headed, sooner or later, for government in the Republic. If for no other reason than that, the media is duty bound to report on Sinn Féin without fear or favour.

Granting any institution or political party immunity from public scrutiny can too easily become a habit, for which a high price has eventually to be paid.

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