Sunday Business Post

Nationalists complain of fire brigade discrimination

17/10/04 00:00
By Paul T Colgan

The fire brigade in the North is coming under increasing pressure over claims that it discriminates against applicants from nationalist areas and that its senior management is dominated by Protestants.
Down-based fire officer John Allen has alleged that the fire brigade has discriminated against him in his bid for promotion to its headquarters in Lisburn.

Allen, a senior fire officer of 18 years standing, applied for the post of divisional officer last year. Though he was offered the job, the fire brigade demanded that he live within the Lisburn standby area.

The zone, drawn up without proper equality screening, excludes large parts of Allen's hometown of Warrenpoint and various other nationalist strongholds such as Downpatrick, Newry and west Belfast.

It instead incorporates predominantly unionist areas such as Portadown, Tandragee and Banbridge.

The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has carried out a formal investigation into the matter and is due to report on it in the coming weeks.

Catholics are seriously under-represented at brigade headquarters. As of last month only 17.4 per cent of staff there were Catholic.

Headquarters administration staff is predominantly Protestant, with 80 per cent Protestant representation and only 16.5 per cent of staff taken from the Catholic community.

In the control room, 80 per cent of staff are Protestant and 14 per cent Catholic. Catholics make up only 34.6 per cent of chief fire officers, and Protestants 58 per cent.

The rationale for the newly drawn standby area maps is unclear. Prior to the re-designation, the brigade had drawn up its standby zone to take in a 30-mile radius from Lisburn headquarters. If these had remained in place Allen would have been able to take up the job of divisional officer without having to leave home.

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams has taken up the case in his own west Belfast constituency, which is also excluded from the zone, even though it is on Lisburn's doorstep.

It instead stretches as far as Loughgall, Co Armagh in the west, and Islandmagee, Co Antrim in the east. Belfast is closer to Lisburn than both locations, yet is excluded from the standby zone.

The brigade's code on standby and call-out areas states that they should be based on whether they are within 'reasonable driving distance' of Lisburn headquarters.

The new standby zones have come in for criticism from the fire brigade's union, which has called for them to be reviewed as quickly as possible.

A judicial review application taken by Allen in Belfast High Court in June concluded that the fire brigade had not carried out a equality screening process, which is required by law, before redrawing the standby boundaries.

Allen had alleged that the chief fire officer, Colin Lammey, failed to refer the matter to an equality manager or carry out an independent investigation, and that the brigade failed to respond to his complaint within the timescale set out in its own equality scheme.

Despite dismissing Allen's application for a judicial review, High Court Judge Mr Justice Weatherup found that the fire brigade had failed to deal with his initial complaint properly and that a departmental investigation should have been carried out into his claims.

The chief fire officer has undertaken to screen the standby areas policy properly. All non-departmental public bodies in the North must comply with section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act, which dictates that all policy be screened for equality impact before being introduced.

A spokeswoman for the fire brigade said it would report on the equality screening process by the start of next year. She denied that the brigade was discriminating against anyone. "Equality is absolutely paramount to us, and our equality unit is very active," she said.

"The existing standby maps for senior officers were produced in 1999 to provide the best possible geographic emergency cover.

"The principle of the standby areas applies right across Northern Ireland to ensure optimum supervision at incidents for both members of the public and our firefighters."

Sinn Féin has said that the case shows that discrimination against Catholics is still prevalent in the North.

"It's one of the cases that shows true discrimination is rife in the North of Ireland," said South Down Assembly member and Sinn Féin equality and human rights spokeswoman Caitriona Ruane.

"We're very disappointed at the way in which the state has dealt with it."

She said the British government had taken a markedly different approach to dealing with claims of discrimination against ethnic minorities among public bodies in England. "Where there is a problem with discrimination in England, the minister responsible is saying very clearly that he will not tolerate it.

"Yet here in the North the same government has turned a blind eye to discrimination, and failed to deal with it," she said.

Ruane said the problem fed into unemployment figures published last week. While unemployment in the North is at an all-time low, Catholic men are twice as likely as Protestant to be out of work. Ruane said the difference was "structural'' in nature.

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