Campaigners have won a landmark challenge to the non-disclosure of legal advice which stalled controversial plans to erect Irish language signs at a south Belfast leisure centre.
A tribunal ruled on Thursday that a refusal of access to opinion on the decision taken by the city council was unlawful.
Members of the panel held that the public interest in releasing the material outweighed reasons for maintaining confidentiality.
In a judgment they stated: “The fact that the legal advice effectively overturned the majority vote in the council points towards the value of a public explanation.”
Jubilant Irish language rights group Conradh na Gaeilge, who took the case, declared it a good day for transparency and democracy.
Bilingual signs were set to be put up at Olympia Leisure Centre, located off the Boucher Road and close to the mainly Protestant Village neighbourhood.
But the proposals were put on hold in 2022 following a successful “call-in” motion tabled by DUP representatives on the council.
Concerns about a possible adverse community impact were raised at the time.
The proposals for dual language signage at the leisure centre have since been put out to public consultation.
Conradh na Gaeilge lodged an appeal after the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) upheld the Council’s decision to deny its request for details on the legal opinion and material which determined the test for the DUP’s call-in motion had been met.
In December 2022 the ICO concluded that an exemption on advice protected by legal professional privilege outweighed the public interest in disclosure.
But Conradh na Gaeilge, a social and cultural organisation which promotes the Irish language, insists full transparency is required.
Backed by the Public Interest Litigation Support (PILS) Project and the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), the group took its challenge to a tribunal sitting at the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast.
Lawyers for the campaigners contended that the Council cannot use legal privilege to stop public scrutiny of the legal process.
Four representatives from the Irish speaking community attended the hearing and introduced themselves in Irish.
Conradh na Gaeilge said it was the first time witnesses had officially spoken the language in a Belfast court in nearly 300 years.
The Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) 1737, which forbids anything other than English being used in court documentation or proceedings, has yet to be repealed.
Despite parliamentary moves to scrap the prohibition through the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Act 2022, brought in by Westminster, the new statutory provisions have not been implemented.
In its ruling, the tribunal said the question of public confidence in decision-making must take centre stage.
The panel referred to a “paucity” of available information, adding that details of the call-in were not released until long after the refusal.
“The appellant finds it difficult to comprehend the legal and evidential basis for a decision that erecting Irish language signs in leisure centres would cause a disproportionate adverse effect on a part of the population,” the judgment stated.
“The ability and preparedness of UK bodies to explain to their own population how they are (or are not) meeting their aspirations is a substantial matter of public interest far outweighing the public interest of legal privilege and, given the circumstances, doing no harm to that interest.
“The decision of the Information Commissioner is not in accordance with the law and the appeal is allowed.”
Speaking outside court, Cuisle Nic Liam from Conradh na Gaeilge predicted the ruling will help Irish language policy development for years to come.
She said: “Today is a good day for transparency, it is a good day for equality, for democracy and for the Irish language.
“The fact of the matter is that Belfast City Council changed their decision to erect dual-language signage at Olympia Leisure Centre as a direct consequence of this legal determination.
“Today’s ruling means we will finally have sight of that rationale and can publicly challenge those policy-defining assertions.”
Una Boyd, representing CAJ, commended witnesses from the Irish-speaking community who addressed the court.
She added: “The tribunal recognised that the significance and sensitivity of the information was clear from their evidence.”