Employment Tribunal considers whether Scottish independence is a philosophical belief

Author: Siobhán Lafferty

August 15, 2018

A recent case, Mr Chris McEleny v Ministry of Defence (MoD), in the UK has considered whether a belief in Scottish independence amounted to a belief which was capable of protection from discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. In this instance it was decided that Scottish independence could be considered a philosophical belief for the purposes of the Act.

Here, Mr McEleny had been working as an electrician at the Ministry of Defence plant in North Ayrshire, at which point he announced his desire to become the Deputy Leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP). Further to announcing this bid to become higher within the ranks of the SNP, the MoD revoked his security clearance and suspended him from his role. He alleged that subsequently he was vetted by the MoD’s National Security Vetting on his suitability for clearance. He stated that as part of the questioning, political issues were raised such as his position on Trident and his position on Irish politics. Eventually his security clearance was reinstated, but he resigned his position and raised a claim against the MoD.

The Equality Act 2010 in the UK outlines that a philosophical belief is a protected characteristic, on the basis of which a person cannot be discriminated against. One of the preliminary issues which arose here was whether Mr McEleny could in fact claim direct discrimination on the basis of his philosophical belief, that belief being in Scottish independence. It was argued by the MoD that this could not be the case as this was merely a political opinion rather than a philosophical belief and that support for the notion of Scottish independence and the SNP did not extend far enough beyond Scotland to merit the status of philosophical belief.

Judge Eccles, however, did not agree with the points raised by the MoD and noted that the belief “has a sufficiently similar cogency to a religious belief…to qualify as a philosophical belief”. This finding now means Mr McElheny can go ahead with the pursuit of his claim of direct discrimination.

Whilst the Employment Equality Acts 1998 – 2015 have a more restricted definition which only relates to religious belief alone, rather than philosophical belief like the UK legislation, this case does raise the question as to how far the notion of a religious belief would or could be interpreted by the Workplace Relations Commission here in Ireland.

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