DUP minister ‘entitled to refuse Irish school’

Former DUP minister Peter Weir
Former DUP minister Peter Weir

A former education minister was entitled to refuse an Irish language primary school’s bid to relocate from its 117-year-old building in west Belfast, appeal judges held on Friday.

In a majority decision, they overturned a previous High Court ruling which had quashed Peter Weir’s rejection of Gaelscoil an Lonnain’s plans.

Lord Justice Deeny said: “The process here was neither unfair nor unlawful.”

The outcome represents a major blow for the school in its attempts to move from premises regarded by pupils’ parents as being cramped and no longer fit for purpose.

With an enrolment of around 60 children, Gaelscoil an Lonnain currently operates at a building on the Falls Road which first opened in 1901.

In 2015 its board of governors submitted a relocation proposal.

The plan was to move to the former site of St Comgall’s School in the Divis area.

Support was said to have been secured from the Education Authority, the Education and Training Authority and Comhairle na Gaelscolaiochta - the statutory body set up to advise the Department of Education on compliance with the obligation to facilitate the development Irish language education.

Mr Weir turned down the proposals in June 2016.

The mother of two pupils issued judicial review proceedings over his decision, claiming the MLA acted irrationally and failed to comply with a statutory duty to develop Irish medium education.

Her lawyers also argued that it had unlawfully taken into account irrelevant factors.

In October 2017 a High Court judge, Mrs Justice Keegan, backed her case, ruling that the minister had not properly taken into account the views of Comhairle na Gaelscolaiochta, and described his approach at one point as being “too rigid”.

At that stage his decision was quashed and a direction given for the development proposal to be reconsidered.

But judges in the Court of Appeal reversed the verdict by a two-one majority. Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan and Lord Justice Deeny both held the minister had been entitled to make the decision. Lord Justice Treacy was in the minority.

“It seems to me that the judgment at first instance denies the Executive the discretion it enjoys in law in this matter,” Lord Justice Deeny said.

“The Executive should not be discouraged from discharging its duty to make decisions for the public good by judicial review challenges based on tangential or flimsy factors.”