Northern Ireland

Legal advice which stalled plans to erect Irish language signs at Belfast leisure centre should be disclosed, court hears

Conradh na Gaeilge launched an appeal against being denied documentation on the decision taken by Belfast City Council.
Conradh na Gaeilge launched an appeal against being denied documentation on the decision taken by Belfast City Council.

Legal advice which stalled controversial plans to erect Irish language signs at a south Belfast leisure centre should be disclosed for full public scrutiny, a tribunal has heard. 

In a potentially landmark case, campaign group Conradh na Gaeilge launched an appeal against being denied documentation on the decision taken by Belfast City Council.

Dual-language 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 last year 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 bilingual signage at the leisure centre have since been put out to public consultation.

Meanwhile, the Information Commissioner’s Office is being challenged for upholding the council’s decision to deny its request for details on the legal opinion and material which determined that the test for the DUP’s call-in motion had been met.

In December, the ICO concluded that an exemption for information 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 that full transparency is required.

As its appeal began at a tribunal sitting at the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast on Thursday, the group’s barrister, Iryna Kennedy, submitted: “The council cannot hide behind legal privilege in order to stop the public from scrutinising the legal process".

Four representatives from the Irish-speaking community attended the hearing and were set to give evidence on the importance of having dual-language signs.

They were expected to make brief, introductory remarks in Irish - a potential first since use of the language for court proceedings in Northern Ireland was banned under the Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) 1737.

“This was a decision about the public interest without hearing from the public,” Ms Kennedy said.

“This court is in a perfect position to hear from the people who are Irish speakers.”

However, the hearing was adjourned before any of the witnesses got to speak.

Identifying a lack of analysis provided for the public interest test, the tribunal panel issued directions for more evidence.

It was also confirmed that the council is to be put on notice as a party to the proceedings. 

Outside court, Cuisle Nic Liam of Conradh na Gaeilge insisted that dual-language signs achieve the required parity and equality in shared spaces such as Olympia Leisure Centre.

“Alarm bells went off for us that the legal determination provided to council was found to have met the threshold which suggests that bilingual signage could ‘disproportionately affect adversely’ a ‘section of the inhabitants of the district’,” she said.

“This determination seriously impacts a community, but they have refused to release it to that community.”

With the challenge supported by the Committee on the Administration of Justice, its director Daniel Holder added: “It cries out for an explanation how a decision can be reached that having to place Irish on a sign alongside English could constitute discriminatory treatment.

“That is why we consider it is important that these documents are released for public scrutiny.”