Northern Ireland news

Belfast trust trying to 'locate' missing laptop linked to City Hospital 'toxic sectarianism' probe

Belfast City Hospital's security department was at the centre of a probe in alleged sectarianism
Seanín Graham

A LAPTOP containing secretly-recorded footage of security staff at Belfast City hospital as a part of a probe into allegations of "toxic" sectarianism has been lost, it has emerged.

Belfast health trust last night said efforts are being made to locate the computer equipment which contains images and audio from a controversial investigation that involved a hidden camera and microphones being installed in a private rest room area.

Trust officials also confirmed they have informed the Northern Ireland Information Commissioner's office about the missing data and apologised to the staff affected.

In addition, they have alerted them to the critical findings of a confidential independent report - given to the trust in January - which highlighted "major concerns" about how it authorised the secret surveillance and if it breached data protection laws.

The Irish News revealed yesterday how leaked documents had detailed a litany of "nasty and vindictive" alleged incidents - including death threats and bullets being sent to the home of a Catholic employee - that led to the covert surveillance in 2012.

Comments reportedly overheard at the major hospital, which is close to Sandy Row in south Belfast and houses the regional cancer centre, included: "The only good Catholic is a dead one".

It was also claimed that wooden pallets were "left out" by some security guards for locals to take to a nearby bonfire, and that images of paedophile priest Brendan Smyth were placed on a staff rota around St Patrick's Day.

Further allegations emerged yesterday, including that of an employee who carried a copy of The Irish News into the security department was told: "We don't read that newspaper in here".

A security staff member escorting Milltown murderer Michael Stone through the hospital was also alleged to have punched the air and shouted: "Michael Stone is my hero."

An investigation at the time concluded that "there was insufficient robust evidence to consider disciplinary action against any individual(s)", with recommendations instead to make staff aware of the importance of a neutral work environment.

The secret recordings only came to light last summer when a whistleblower informed security staff about the 'operation'.

Former and current security staff complained to the trust and the independent review was ordered last October, with its two authors stating that it was "clear that the atmosphere was toxic" at the time of the allegations.

The report found a huge gap in the trust's paper trail "at every stage" and questioned "if and how the footage/data was disposed of at the end of the covert operations".

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

In a statement released yesterday to the Irish News, a trust spokesman said: "In 2018, Belfast trust commissioned a fully independent investigation into the alleged installation of covert CCTV equipment in a trust security department. We received the final report in January 2019 and we have accepted all its recommendations.

"The Northern Ireland Information Commissioner was notified about the detail of the report and senior management have met with those staff who had initially raised concerns, to issue an apology.

"Efforts are being made to locate a laptop so that its contents can be examined and the Information Commissioner's Office is aware of this. We are unable to provide the names of those involved as this is data personal to them."

Sinn Féin Upper Bann assembly member John O'Dowd, who wrote to the trust on behalf of a constituent who was secretly filmed, said the loss of the data was a "very worrying development".

"I accept that the trust should use all legal methods available to them when serious crimes are suspected but it is also their obligation to inform staff members about covert operations once completed," he said.

"They should have taken every measure possible to ensure this information was securely held and it has now emerged it has been misplaced, which places more stress on my constituent and infringes on his data protection rights."

A spokeswoman for the Information Commissioner's Officer's office last night confirmed the Belfast trust has "made us aware of an incident and we are making enquiries".

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