Tribunal rules councillor’s Scottish independence view is ‘philosophical belief’

Chris McEleny.
Chris McEleny.
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A tribunal has ruled that a councillor’s belief in Scottish independence is a ‘philosophical’ belief - after he reported workplace discrimination from the MoD.

The judge ruled that SNP councillor Chris McEleny’s claims about Scottish independence were of ‘sufficient weight and importance to human life and behaviour to be philosophical in nature’.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) asked an employment tribunal to reconsider its position over an SNP councillor who said he had been discriminated against on the grounds of his political position.

Mr McEleny, who sits on Inverclyde Council, was suspended and had his security clearance revoked after announcing his candidacy for the party’s depute leadership post in 2016.

The electrician, who worked for the MoD in Beith, North Ayrshire, was quizzed by security officials about supporting independence, opposing the Trident nuclear system and his mental health.

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Mr McEleny, who was reinstated months later, took the MoD to a specialist tribunal alleging unfair treatment.

In July last year judge Frances Eccles agreed his independence views constituted a philosophical belief and should be protected under the Equality Act 2010.

That finding cleared the case to move to a full hearing of the circumstances.

However, this was put on hold when the MoD appealed the judge’s findings, claiming a distinction between political and philosophical opinions.

Now the case is set to proceed after the judge dismissed the MoD’s argument.

In a written statement, Judge Eccles said McEleny’s position fulfilled all the criteria of a philosophical belief.

According to legal definitions, such a belief must be held on a “weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour” and be “worthy of respect in a democratic society”.

It must also differ from viewpoints formed “based on the present state of information available”.

The MoD had argued that ideals around Scottish governance did not extend far enough beyond the country’s borders to warrant the status of a philosophical belief and would have “no substantial impact on the lives of citizens in, for example, Tanzania, Peru or India.”

However, the judge stated: “I was persuaded from the evidence before me that the claimant’s belief that Scotland, as opposed to any other country, should be independent was of sufficient weight and importance to human life and behaviour to be philosophical in nature.

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“I did not find the claimant’s belief in political independence was unique to Scotland or people living in Scotland.

“I was persuaded that it is a belief of material relevance and application to human life and behaviour generally.”

In a January hearing, MoD lawyer Dr Andrew Gibson insisted the 1.5 million Scots who voted Yes in 2014 were not as “fanatical” as Mr McEleny.

Dr Gibson argued that it would be “ludicrous” to suggest they would have backed that option “if they had thought that the Scottish economy would be adversely affected”.

But, in her reconsideration, Judge Eccles said: “I am not persuaded that it was necessary for me to find that each of the 1.5 million people who voted in favour of independence would, if asked, have articulated exactly the same belief as the claimant for his belief to be philosophical in nature.”

The MoD also claimed that Mr McEleny’s convictions about independence were linked to the SNP’s “social democratic values” and self-determination more generally.

However, the judge rejected these arguments, stating: “I was not persuaded that because a political party has a policy that manifests a person’s belief and which, for that reason, the person supports, it must follow that their belief cannot be philosophical in nature.

“The claimant supports the SNP because achieving Scottish independence is its principal policy.”

Mr McEleny, who represents Inverclyde West, said: “I very much welcome the decision and thank everyone for the support shown to date.

“Naturally, as I am sure people will understand, I will refrain from further comment until after the full conclusion of proceedings.”

A full hearing on Mr McEleny’s allegations will now be scheduled.