A senior Northern Ireland civil servant was paid £10,000 in compensation because he was offended at having to walk past portraits of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, it has emerged.
His complaints led to the portraits being removed at his request, and replaced by a picture of the Queen meeting Martin McGuinness, the former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland and ex-IRA leader.
Lee Hegarty, who is currently in charge of the Northern Irish Parades Commission, claimed that under human rights laws it was unfair to him to have to work in a place where he was offended by such portraits.
Former Ulster Unionist MP Lord Maginnis, who exposed the “scandalous episode,” said the portraits had been removed and Mr Hegarty was then consulted on what would replace them.
The civil servant suggested images of the Queen meeting people at engagements in Northern Ireland.
“One such photograph features Her Majesty the Queen shaking hands with the former deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast,” Lord Maginnis told the Lords.
“I do not mind that; what I mind is that the case brought by the complainant was settled secretly and that the sum of £10,000 was handed over, presumably for hurt feelings and distress,” Lord Maginnis told the Lords.
“This settlement was signed off by the then secretary of state, Theresa Villiers MP, on the recommendation, I am informed, of her permanent secretary Jonathan Stephens.
“I have been told to look at the annual accounts to find out where the money came from – but it is not to be found. That should concern us.”
Lord Maginnis said that last year, some time after the compensation, Mr Hegarty was promoted to become accounting officer of the Parades Commission.
The peer contrasted the treatment of Mr Hegarty witho the years of delay in compensating victims of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland, who he said had been “shamefully left out in the cold when it comes to their justifiable claims for compensation”.
He added: “This is scandalous. It is an indictment of the Northern Ireland Office and of this government.
“We have lost all sense of reality when a portrait of Her Majesty can cause offence to a civil servant but we do not bat an eyelid when we deny closure and justice to unfortunate people who have been abused in the most outrageous manner imaginable.
“I urge the Northern Ireland Office not only to restore the original portraits of Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh but to expedite payment of the comparatively paltry compensation due to the people who are more deserving than this opportunistic civil servant who, surely, must now be compromised in his position in the Parades Commission because of his bigoted stance over the Royal Family.”
Sammy Wilson, a senior DUP MP, said: “It shows the madness of the Northern Ireland Office and the civil service in Northern Ireland. Civil servants are working for the crown, their head is the Queen.
“A picture of the Queen is not sectarian. The fact that even Sinn Fein go and meet her shows that it could not possibly be regarded as something that the nationalist community cannot identify with.
“There’s now a general compensation culture within the civil service in Northern Ireland, where people get offended or claim to be offended knowing that they’ll be paid.
“There’s a level of intolerance that has crept. This civil servant for years walked past the same picture of the Queen. For 20 years he succeeded in not being offended...and presumably for 20 years he has accepted his pay, which has the Queen’s head on.
“His compensation will also be paid in sterling. I am absolutely sure that taxpayers will be outraged by it”
A source close to Ms Villiers said: “Theresa was hugely reluctant to allow this payment but unfortunately sometimes that it is unavoidable in this kind of legal dispute. Any secretary of state has to listen to legal advice in such cases whatever their own personal views.”
The Northern Ireland Office said in a brief statement: “We will not comment on individual personnel matters.”