Antrim and Newtownabbey council adopts new draft dual language sign policy

Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council has adopted a draft dual language street sign policy which means Irish language signs will need the support of council and local residents to proceed.

A proposal put forward by Glengormley Ulster Unionist Alderman Mark Cosgrove and seconded by Airport DUP Councillor Matthew Magill was approved behind closed doors at a meeting of the local authority.

It follows a public consultation carried out by the borough council earlier this year to which 1,225 responses were received. Ninety-four per cent were from residents of the borough.

At the meeting, Glengormley Sinn Fein Councillor Michael Goodman, seconded by party colleague Airport Councillorr Annemarie Logue, proposed that the item be deferred until there is “clarity on the role of councils in regard to the new cultural legislation”.

Ulster Unionist Alderman Mark Cosgrove

This proposal was supported by the SDLP group but defeated by 23 votes against.

A further proposal was put to the meeting by Antrim Alliance Councillor Neil Kelly, seconded by party colleague Threemilewater Councillor Julie Gilmour, to adopt the Draft Dual Language Street Sign Policy subject to review after three years with an amendment regarding the number of people in a street required to sign a petition in support of a dual language sign be reduced from one third to a quarter.

In addition, he proposed that the requirement that two thirds or more of all those canvassed would have to indicate that they are in favour of the erection of a second language street sign be reduced to 50 per cent plus one.

This proposal received the support of the Alliance group only.

It was then proposed by Ald Cosgrove, seconded by Cllr Magill, that the council adopts the Draft Dual Language Street Sign Policy subject to review after three years.

This motion was approved by 23 councillors in favour and nine Sinn Fein and SDLP councillors against.

It means that an application will have to be supported by a petition representing at least one third of residents for which the application is made and must have the backing of the local authority before it can proceed to the next stage of canvassing street residents by post to seek their views on the request to erect a street sign in a second specified language.

If two thirds or more indicate that they are in favour of the erection of a second language street sign, the application will be brought before the council for decision.

If a decision is approved by the authority to erect a street sign in a second language, a translation will have to be carried out by an independent body. The second language sign will be placed below the English in lettering the same size.

If the request is refused by the council, further language signage  requests for that street will not be considered for a further three years.

The Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 gives councils the power to erect dual language street signs or secondary nameplates in a language other than English.

The issue first arose in February 2018 when the council received a request from Abbeyville Residents’ Association for five Irish language street signs which was turned down after councillors voted in favour of a policy retaining street signs in English only.

According to the 2011 census, 6.52 per cent of residents in Antrim and Newtownabbey had some knowledge of Irish, 9.3 per cent, Ulster-Scots and 2.72 per cent did not have English as their first language.

However, in September 2018, the council was forced to do a U-turn after being challenged in the High Court by a resident who sought a judicial review over a “deeply held concern that the policy adopted by the  borough council was unlawful”.

The council insisted that its policy was “not a ban in any way on the Irish language” and a new, “more detailed policy would be drafted for the council to consider”.

A year later, councillors agreed that a three-month public consultation should be carried out with a further report to be brought to councillors for consideration.

Commmenting on Antrim and Newtownabbey’s Draft Dual Language Street Sign Policy, Dr Padraig O’Tiarnagh, of Conradh na Gaelige, said: “The Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 gave local councils the power to set their own guidelines and policies in relation to this matter.

“Until now, this council hasn’t had a policy to that effect, giving local residents no avenue to apply for a street sign that was inclusive of the Irish language.

“Given over 95 per cent of our local place names derive directly from Irish, affording recognition to the indigenous origins of our streets and townlands helps to reconnect us to a shared linguistic landscape that we should all be celebrating.

“Rather than bringing in a modern day, minority rights’ compliant policy to facilitate this change, the council has decided to bring in a restrictive, draconian policy that seeks to frustrate and ultimately deny residents who legitimately wish to access bilingual signage in their streets.

“This new policy is at odds with other local councils that have developed and implemented policies based on best practice and international guidance.

“Conradh na Gaeilge has offered the council advice based on the European Charter for Regional Minority Languages, based on guidance from both the United Nations and Foras na Gaeilge.

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“The council has ignored that advice and pushed ahead with a policy that falls well below the legitimate expectations of local residents. We hope that with the incoming Irish language legislation through Westminster that the Irish Language Commissioner will be able to provide further guidance regarding best practice.”