Northern Ireland news

Sectarian harassment of Catholic official at NIO 'strained relationship with Dublin'

A junior staff member at the Northern Ireland Office was a victim of sectarian harassment
Éamon Phoenix

A PROVEN case of sectarian harassment in the private office of Northern Ireland Office minister, Baroness Jean Denton, in 1997 affected her close relationship with Dublin, newly-released files reveal.

Baroness Denton, the first woman appointed to the direct rule team, was Under-Secretary for Agriculture, Health and Social Services at the NIO.

She enjoyed a good relationship with Dublin following her joint initiative in 1996 with the Republic’s tourism minister Charles McCreevy to market Ireland as a single tourist destination.

In early 1997, however, claims of sectarian harassment in her private office emerged.

The Irish News reported that the victim - a Catholic - had received damages against an aide of the minister who had been retained in her post.

In March 1997, the distinguished public servant, Dr Maurice Hayes was appointed to investigate the harassment claim.

It emerged that in July 1996 a junior staff member was transferred on Baroness Denton’s instructions.

The transferred officer later complained of sectarian harassment and subsequently took a case to the Fair Employment Tribunal. An investigation confirmed that harassment had taken place and the department accepted responsibility, issued an apology and made a compensation payment of £10,000 to the victim.

Sinn Féin's Mitchel McLaughlin said he would raise the issue with US congressmen while SDLP MP Seamus Mallon tabled a question in parliament.

In her reply to Mr Mallon, Baroness Denton stressed that she was "wholly unaware of any issues of a sectarian nature in her private office until after the official was transferred".

She said she hoped that her actions over the years showed that she was seeking a better future for all communities.

A memo to the Northern Ireland Office said the matter had caused Baroness Denton "great distress".


At a dinner for Baroness Denton, hosted by Irish officials at Maryfield in Belfast on April 3, 1997, the minister asked how the Irish government had viewed the matter.

David Donoghue, the Irish Joint Secretary, said they were perplexed at "the retention of the harasser in post while the harassee was transferred".

Despite Irish reassurances over dinner, the minister believed that the issue had "affected her relationship with Dublin", an NIO memo noted.

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