Row over 'unauthorised' Irish language street sign: Council insists issue is about planning, not equality

Irish language campaign group An Dream Dearg highlighted the issue on its Twitter feed earlier this week.
Irish language campaign group An Dream Dearg highlighted the issue on its Twitter feed earlier this week.

A Northern Ireland council that has told a householder to remove an "unauthorised" Irish language street sign from their property has insisted the matter is "not an equality issue".

Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council has been criticised by Irish language campaigners and nationalist politicians for being "anti-Irish" after it wrote to the homeowner in the Ashdale area of Randalstown warning them that they had to remove the 'Gleann na Fuinseoige' sign within seven days or they could face court action and a potential fine of up to £2,500.

But the local authority has insisted the issue is not about the language used on the sign, but rather "planning considerations". It said the sign was erected without the appropriate consent.

The council said it wrote to the householder after it received a complaint about the sign from a member of the public.

The seven-day deadline expired on Wednesday, June 19, but its is understood the sign has not been taken down.

Stressing that the case "remains under consideration", a council spokesperson said: "The council receives a large number of complaints regarding alleged unauthorised signage in the borough and in the last 12 months has issued warning letters in approximately 80 cases.

"Nearly all planning enforcement cases are resolved through negotiation. Only a small number of cases which cannot be resolved by agreement end up proceeding to the courts.

"The case in question is not an equality issue as it specifically involves planning considerations.

"The case remains under consideration and therefore it is not appropriate to comment any further on the matter at this time."

Local resident Medb Ní Dhúláin, who placed the sign on her 85-year-old grandmother’s railings, said she was "shocked and angry" that the council had threatened court action over the issue and accused the local authority of showing "blatant hostility" towards the Irish language.

Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin, spokesperson for Irish language pressure group An Dream Dearg's community campaign, said the sign "simply reflects the English language street sign in its original place-name" and branded the council's response "hugely disproportionate."

A spokesperson for Conradh na Gaeilge - an organisation which promotes the Irish language - said: "It is our understanding that the council has arranged to meet with Ms Ní Dhúláin next week to discuss this matter. Both Medb Ní Dhúláin and Conradh na Gaeilge have sought legal advice on this matter and are working closely with other groups, namely the CAJ and other legal advisors."

The spokesperson said Ms Ní Dhúláin, a fluent Irish language speaker, had no further statement to make at this time.

Accusing the council of having taken an "over zealous approach", Dunsilly SDLP Councillor Ryan Wilson has called on it to work with political representatives to "redesign their signage policy to ensure issues like this are handled in a more appropriate way."

Stressing the issue is about planning rules and regulations, the council spokesperson added: "It is the practice for Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council to investigate all complaints of a breach of planning or advertisement control in line with the council’s agreed Planning Enforcement Strategy.

"If a breach is identified it is the council’s normal practice to write to those who have erected the signage and advise that a breach has occurred and that steps will need to be taken to remedy the matter. Remedies can include the granting of retrospective consent or the removal of the signage.

"In line with the council’s Enforcement Strategy the purpose of planning enforcement action is to seek to remedy breaches of control, rather than to be punitive.

"The display of signage is governed by the Planning (Control of Advertisements) Regulations (NI) 2015 and it is an offence, liable to prosecution, for signage to be displayed without the requisite consent in place."