Northern Ireland news

Revealed: Covert investigation at Belfast City Hospital after allegations of sectarianism involving security staff

Allegations of "toxic" sectarianism involving security staff at Belfast City Hospital resulted in NHS bosses sanctioning a covert investigation using secret cameras and listening devices. Picture by Mal McCann
Seanín Graham

A 'covert' investigation has been revealed in which a secret camera and hidden microphones were placed in a major hospital to probe allegations of "toxic" sectarianism involving security staff.

The Irish News has learned that security staff at Belfast City Hospital were filmed and recorded without their knowledge following claims of "nasty and divisive behaviours" that culminated in alleged death threats.

Two listening devices and a camera were installed in the security department's kitchen/rest room areas, following reports of sectarian "infighting" among staff.

Management were alerted to allegations of harassment "aimed especially at Catholic staff" which included a photograph of paedophile priest Brendan Smyth being placed on a rota around St Patrick's Day, with a caption reading "yum, yum, bring me your kiddies".

While the covert operation was carried out seven years ago, it only came to light after individuals who were filmed received a tip-off from a whistleblower last summer.

Read More: 'Kill Fenians' remarks among allegations of sectarianism in Belfast City Hospital

And it has emerged that the Belfast health trust became the subject of a critical independent investigation in which "major concerns" were raised about how it "authorised" the secret surveillance and if it breached data protection laws.

It can be revealed there was "no evidence that any of the footage or data was ever used or acted upon".

The alleged posting of "offensive material" on lockers, defacing of notice boards, racist abuse of Filipino staff and wearing of Rangers football tops to work were among the "nasty and vindictive incidents" which led Belfast trust bosses to install the recording equipment, according to the report.

"It is clear that the atmosphere was toxic," it states.

Leaked documents show an independent NHS team was commissioned by the trust last October to carry out the review - following complaints from security guards - and discovered a litany of failings in the trust's handling of the controversy, including a huge gap in its "paper trail" at "every stage of the process" and questions around who had 'sign off'.

Questions were also raised about whether "all avenues" had been explored before sanctioning an operation of this kind, which is only used where serious crimes are suspected.

The independent investigators noted there was a "widespread view" that the installation of listening equipment in a rest room which was used for "private conversations" was also "highly intrusive and unjustified".

Such is the level of concern about the findings of the confidential report, which was carried out by the HSC Leadership Centre and published last month, that the Northern Ireland Information Commissioner has been alerted.

Trust bosses held a meeting with some of the security guards last week in which an apology was issued, with one senior director expressing her "shock" that the listening devices had been used.

Brenda Creaney, who is the director of nursing and user experience at the trust - and oversees security personnel - was among those attended the meeting.

The trust, which is currently at the centre of the Muckamore Abbey hospital abuse scandal after CCTV showed patients being physically abused by staff, has been accused of a lack of transparency by some of the affected families.

The report, seen by The Irish News, recommends that the trust should respond in an "open and accountable" manner to questions by security guards.

Its two authors criticise the "informal approach" taken by the trust in relation to the sanctioning and "ongoing monitoring" of the operation - with only one piece of paperwork submitted.

"Although a Request Form was completed in relation to this operation, the Investigation Team had some major concerns about the process of authorising this operation," they state.

The report adds: "Approval of this covert operation by senior management… was given verbally but not in writing... The contractor was apparently asked to install the covert CCTV cameras etc on the basis of a telephone call.

"There was a lack of paperwork at every stage of the process, but in particular, to demonstrate if and how the footage/data was disposed of at the end of the covert operation."

The report notes that the CCTV contractors were "adamant" they "DID NOT (sic) destroy or wipe the hard drive".

The trust however insists the information was "downloaded by Wi-Fi, then after 28 days it was wiped automatically".

Private recordings were supposed to be stopped within "56 days" but this deadline was ignored and instead lasted "181 days".

In a damning finding, the report's two authors note there was "no review after 56 days" or "renewal of the authority to continue with the covert operation despite it being widely understood by all those interviewed that a review is required after the initial deadline has passed".

And they warned of the potential breaches of data protection laws.

"…on a straightforward reading of the Information Commissioner Officer's (ICO) Employment Practices Data Protection Code, we have concerns as to whether the Trust complied with all the requirements of the ICO Code(s) and data protection legislation during this covert operation."

The report recommends an overhaul of the trust's policy on its CCTV code of practice as it was "unable to find any" at the "time of this covert operation".

Aidan Hanna, who represented two of the security guards on behalf of the Staff and Workers Association (SAW) trade union, last night said it was "incredible" that his members were never made of the existence of the footage.

"As soon as the CCTV recording was complete, these two men should have been sat down by the trust and told they had been the subject of a covert operation and that no evidence had been found against them. If it had not been a for a whistleblower alerting them last year, they would never have known about it.

"I'm also puzzled how some of the most senior directors in the trust were never made aware of this and again raises the issue of governance and recording keeping in this trust."

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