Council U-turn on ‘English only’ street signs policy

Mossley Mill, headquarters of Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council
Mossley Mill, headquarters of Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council

Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council has performed a dramatic U-turn on its ‘English only’ street signage policy, it has been confirmed at the High Court today.

The policy, which was brought forward by the council following a request by residents for dual Irish and English language signs in their street, prohibited any language other than English to be displayed on official council street signage.

Laganside.

Laganside.

At a Judicial Review hearing, taken by a local resident, the council confirmed that it has rescinded its policy.

According to a statement issued by Conradh na Gaeilge – an organisation that promotes the Irish language – and KRW Law, the local authority has agreed to pay the full costs of the applicant in respect of having taken the challenge.

Dr Niall Comer, President, Conradh na Gaeilge, said: “Huge credit must go to the Irish-speaking community in the Antrim and Newtownabbey borough for the fantastic campaign that has ultimately overturned this policy.

“Conradh na Gaeilge have consistently called for a uniformed approach to street-signage based on a local plebiscite whereby a simple majority of respondents in any given street can trigger the erection of bilingual signage.

“This case, like many others, highlights the need for clear legislation to direct and inform councils on signage and Irish-language policies. Any incoming Irish language Act must include clear instruction and provision regarding signage, as is considered a central part of language legislation around the world.

“Let’s not forget also that bilingual signage as proposed by Conradh na Gaeilge would include the corresponding English place names as you would see in Wales, Scotland, Canada, and many other countries throughout the world.”

Gráinne Ní Ghilín, a local resident involved with the campaign, added: “Following a complaint by local residents, including myself, upon seeing the implications of this policy, the Chief-Executive of the council recently directly responded claiming that the policy in question was both ‘lawful and proportionate’.

“It seems, several weeks later as the case reaches its legal conclusion that this is no longer the case. Whilst we welcome the wise decision to revoke this policy, concerns remain that the views and wishes of Irish-speaking rate payers in this council were and may again be ignored when the new policy is being formulated.

“We would ask the council to comply, therefore, with the very clear guidance provided by the council of Europe in relation to minority language signage.”

Niall Murphy, from KRW Law said: “The application taken by our client has vindicated her deeply held concern that the policy adopted by Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council was unlawful.

“In the proceedings which we lodged, we alleged that the council had breached the Local Government Order 1995 and were further in breach of the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrew’s Agreement.

“We submitted that the council had acted in a discriminatory manner on the grounds of religion, political opinion and cultural identity, as the decision disproportionately impacted members of the Catholic, Nationalist or Republican community, and that the council had failed in its duty to pay due regard to equality in formulating this policy.”

“We further argued that the council had in a manner likely to breach the UK’s sovereign obligations under article 14 of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. We further alleged that there was no proper consultation and further that the policy was ill informed by insufficient reasons and intelligent consideration.

“Our client expresses regrets that ratepayers money has been wasted on having to pay for the entirety of the costs of this High Court challenge at a time when rates in the borough have been recently increased by 3 per cent.”

Daniel Holder Deputy Director of Committee on the Administration of Justice said: “This was Donald Trump type policy making by the council. They rushed through a policy that others could clearly see was unlawful and discriminatory, bypassing the duties in their own equality scheme in doing so.

“After months of the council telling us the policy was lawful, today confirms a U-turn. We need to be vigilant to ensure that whatever replaces the policy respects human rights standards.”

Responding, a spokesperson for Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council said: “On 17 May 2018 the council received a pre-action protocol letter from the applicant’s solicitors challenging its policy to have street signs in English only. Due to the council receiving this letter at a late stage, there was insufficient time to respond and the applicant then issued Judicial Review proceedings against the council.

“In those circumstances, and to establish a pragmatic way forward, the council agreed that its existing policy would be set aside and that a new, more detailed policy would be drafted for the council to consider.

“Court granted leave for the applicant to withdraw her challenge and the council will pay the applicant’s costs to be taxed in default of agreement.

“It is the councils’ view that its policy was not a ban in any way on the Irish language. The council allocates resources to many initiatives to promote minority languages.”