DUP accepts it was wrong to stop former prisoner working as a groundskeeper

Ex-prisoner Martin Neeson said he should never have been prevented from working as a groundskeeper. Picture by Hugh Russell
Claire Simpson and Connla Young

THE DUP has said it accepts a court ruling that it was wrong to stop a former republican prisoner working as a groundskeeper.

A solicitor for west Belfast man Martin Neeson (58) expressed "grave concern" on Tuesday after a judge held that former DUP leader Peter Robinson breached the ministerial code while serving as finance minister.

Mr Neeson, who was released from jail in 1987 for a murder committed when he was 16, began working with a conservation charity in the Poleglass areas.

However, despite making his employer aware of his convictions at the time, he was deemed unsuitable for the job after undergoing new security checks following a funding change in 2013.

The High Court ruled on Tuesday that Mr Robinson breached the ministerial code in 2007 when he decided that guidelines on employing ex-prisoners formulated as part of the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements should not apply.

That guidance states that a Troubles conviction should not be taken into account "unless it is materially relevant to the employment being sought".

Mr Justice Maguire said Mr Robinson's decision clearly related to a controversial or significant matter which, under Stormont rules, should be taken to the Executive.

"On the facts of this case, declaring the applicant unsuitable for employment flies in the face of being a rational decision," he added.

Mr Neeson is now expected to be compensated for loss of employment.

He told The Irish News the judgment "opens the door for anyone else who is going to be put in the same position".

"I should not have been prevented from being allowed to work," he said.

"It was 38 years ago and as far as I am concerned I got the time and did the time, I can't help what other people feel about it."

His solicitor Niall Murphy also said it was a "resounding exoneration for the citizenship rights of the ex-political prisoner community".

A spokesman for the DUP said "at no point during the consideration of this matter in 2007 did any minister suggest that the matter should be brought before the Executive for consideration".

"Previous judgments of the High Court have indicated that it is proper to make an assessment of whether a matter is controversial by reference to the views of other ministers."

However, the party added that "the decision of the court on this point is entirely accepted and is consistent with the changes to the Northern Ireland Act negotiated at St Andrews".

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