Northern Ireland news

Planned council language policy described as 'de facto ban' on Irish

(clockwise from left) Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council's logo, the Irish language sign the council threatened to prosecute an 85-year-old woman over, Sinn Féin councillor Michael Goodman and an Irish language protest at Stormont
Connla Young

A WORKING group is to be established at a Co Antrim council to consider a dual language street sign policy described by some campaigners as a “de facto ban” on Irish.

The policy was due to be passed at Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council on Monday night.

However, Sinn Féin councillor Michael Goodman tabled a proposal to bring the policy back to a council committee and set up of a dedicated working group.

The move comes weeks after the unionist-dominated council threatened to prosecute an 85-year-old Randalstown woman for having an Irish language street sign on her property.

The pensioner was told in June the sign had been erected without planning consent and that it should be removed.

Last year the High Court heard that a ban on Irish language street signage was rescinded after a local resident launched a legal challenge.

At the time the council claimed that its then policy of 'English only' street signs “was not a ban in any way on the Irish language”.

The council had promised to draft a new policy, which was presented to its Community Planning and Regeneration Committee earlier this month.

The draft policy, which was prepared by the council’s lawyer, includes a number of conditions.

These include a requirement that bilingual signs will only be considered if a petition is signed by no fewer than 50 per cent of residents, included on the electoral register, on any street.

The council will then canvas by post all the residents who appear on the register for their views over a six week period.

Those who do not reply will be deemed not to be in favour of the application.

The council says it may also seek the views of other statutory bodies including the PSNI, Fire and Rescue Service, Ambulance Service and Royal Mail.

If two-thirds of those canvassed indicate they are in favour of dual signage the matter will then be brought before the council.

The council proposes that the second language sign should be located below the English language version and that the lettering shall be smaller than the English “to avoid any risk or confusion to the emergency services”.

Mr Goodman last night said the proposed policy “was not going to meet the council’s obligations under various pieces of international and local law and that’s why we felt it need to come back”.

Alliance councillor Glenn Finlay, who seconded the proposal, said: "I am glad to see it going back to committee so it can get the proper scrutiny."

Conchúr Ó Muadaigh, advocacy manager with Conradh na Gaeilge said: “After legal action in 2018, Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council has now moved from their ‘English only’ policy on street signs to what we would consider, essentially, a de facto ban, including the availability of a ‘veto’ for the council even after all other criteria laid down in the new policy is met.

“It’s our opinion, that the council has designed a policy designed to obstruct and frustrate with unnecessary and unjustified barriers rather than facilitate provision to encourage and allow bilingual signage."

Daniel Holder of the Committee on the Administration of Justice also said the original policy also looks like an attempt to “introduce a de facto ban”.

“The human rights standards stipulate that bilingual signs should go up where there is demand for them, and that councils should not be 'balancing' such demand with opposition if it’s based on prejudice or intolerance, that risks institutionalising sectarianism,” he said.

A spokesman for the council said: "The council will not be in a position to comment on this matter until the ‘call in’ period expires and the minutes are made public on Friday October 4."

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