A BAN on the Irish language being used in tourism signs appears to be heading for the courts amid allegations that the authority responsible, the NI Tourist Board is providing no rational explanation for it.
A row has erupted over the issue in recent months, with Down District Council being forced to accept English-only signs for its tourist signs project before the Tourist Board would hand over the funding needed.
But the Irish language website Meon Eile has learnt that the civil liberties group, the Committee on the Administration of Justice has intervened, saying it believes the board’s position is unlawful and that months of correspondence on the subject have failed to elicit any valid explanation for the ban.
CAJ Deputy Director Daniel Holder has also rejected as “absurd” a suggestion from the board that bilingual signs could present a road safety hazard.
NITB told us that it’s position was consistent with other types of signs and that it was “focused on the experience of the visitor to Northern Ireland, and therefore keen to ensure that all tourist interpretation and signage is clear, does not confuse our visitors and assists them in understanding the importance of the destination”.
Mr Holder was also informed in correspondence with NITB Chief Executive Alan Clarke that the ban was a result of a Ministerial Direction – the suggestion being that this had come from Enterprise Minister, Arlene Foster.
However Mrs Foster’s department has denied that there has been any direction – as did the Tourist board itself. But DETI has told us that Mrs Foster is content with the board’s policy on signs and has reiterated in recent correspondence that it should be adhered to.
A long-running wrangle with Down District Council on the subject ended last month with the council agreeing “under duress” to progress with its £1m tourism signage project in English only in order to get the £200,000 grant from NITB needed to get the scheme under way.
The funding is to go towards six new signage projects for the Downpatrick area, including a Downpatrick Walking Trail – and the council wanted these to be in both English and Irish.
However the Board insisted that it would withhold the funding if the council pressed ahead with bilingual signs.
Sinn Féin’s councillor Éamonn Mac Con Midhe confirmed to The Detail that he had sought legal advice on this issue and understands that although NITB’s ‘English only’ policy is potentially illegal, the council would only have a 50/50 chance of successfully challenging the issue in a judicial review.
However, the Deputy Director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), Daniel Holder believes NITB’s ‘English only’ policy breaches human rights legislation on at least two counts:
(1) that it is failing to abide by Government legislation requiring all public bodies to take positive steps in promoting the Irish language and promoting the traditional form of place names.
(2) that under the European Charter on human rights, public bodies are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of language.
The CAJ director states that although no legal proceedings have been issued to date, some type of action will probably be taken by a member of the public.
He says he has been given no rational explanation for the ban to date.
‘None of these issues seem particularly convincing. It seems to be primarily political directions, but if you are a public body you have to operate within the law.’
The Detail requested an interview with NITB’s chief executive Alan Clarke but was told he would be unavailable to be interviewed.
The Detail has, however, obtained a letter written by Mr Clarke to Mr Holder in which he stated that the board was following a “clear Ministerial Direction” (MD) – the suggestion being from Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster.
On the 17 October 2012 Mr Holder received a letter from Mr Clarke, which stated:
‘”The scope and basis of the Tourist Board’s approach is based upon the Department of Regional Development’s signage Policy which ‘is’ itself supported by a clear Ministerial Direction. This policy provides that signs should be in English only except where the facility in question is known in another language such as Irish.”
Ministerial directions are always written and are requested by the most senior civil servant in a department when they disagree with a minister’s decision so strongly that they refuse to be accountable for it. Such ministerial orders are rare and signify an irresolvable dispute between a minister and his or her most senior civil servant.
Mr Holder says he has not yet seen any proof of a ministerial direction in this case, even with many Freedom of Information (FOI) requests outstanding.
Independent Councillor Cadogan Enright has also sent many requests to the NITB to view the MD but has no written proof that a MD has been issued.
However now both the Department and the Tourist board have confirmed to The Detail that there was no ministerial direction in this case and outlined the board’s position on the subject:
“NITB works closely with local councils to contribute part funding to tourist signage. NITB is entirely focused on the experience of the visitor to Northern Ireland, and therefore keen to ensure that all tourist interpretation and signage is clear, does not confuse our visitors and assists them in understanding the importance of the destination. The approach adopted by NITB, and which is already in place for white and brown road traffic signs, is consistent with Roads Service policy i.e. all signs should be in English except where an attraction is already known in Irish.
“NITB has a good working relationship with local authorities and we are keen to progress all joint signage projects at the earliest opportunity for the benefit of all our visitors. At no time has there been an official direction given to the NITB regarding signage policy in the Down District Council area.”
The Detail requested an interview with the Minister but was told by a spokesperson from DETI that the Minister was unavailable for interview. A Department of Enterprise Spokeswoman said:
“The Department is content with the NITB’s current policy on signage and, in correspondence with the NITB, the Minister reiterated that the current policy should be adhered to. At no time has there been an official direction given to the NITB regarding signage policy in Down District Council.”
A DETI spokesperson clarified to The Detail that there is no difference between an official direction and a ministerial direction.
Meanwhile the CAJ director believes that the tourist board is legally obliged to operate within the law regardless of a MD.
This latest row has again brought the issue of an Irish Language Act, promised in the Good Friday Agreement but which never materialised, to the fore.
Janet Muller, chief executive of the Belfast-based campaign group Pobal strongly believes that bilingual signage should be allowed and that this debate follows a series of problems between NITB and local councils. Ms Muller believes NITB do not understand its legal obligations to accommodate the Irish speaking community. She believes NITB’s ‘English only’ policy breaches the law under both the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, which is to protect traditional place names, and also the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.
Ms Muller believes that NITB’s refusal to allow bilingual signage discriminates against every Irish speaker but especially children who are learning the Irish language and tourists who want to learn about Ireland’s history and culture. Pobal’s chief executive feels there would be no confusion if English and Irish place names were given equal prominence on signage.
Independent councillor Cadogan Enright and Sinn Féin’s councillor Éamonn Mac Con Midhe believe that the erection of bilingual signage would show respect for the community as well as being in keeping with the bilingual policy. They mention the many Irish language schools within the community and how the refusal of bilingual signage is discriminating against families, students, teachers and tourists.
Although NITB is operating an ‘English only’ policy, both councillors Éamonn Mac Con Midhe and Cadogan Enright say there is no evidence of this policy in writing. Councillor Éamonn Mac Con Midhe believes that the ‘English only’ policy goes against The Good Friday Agreement, The Saint Andrew’s Agreement, as well as the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. Councilor Cadogan Enright is sure that NITB’s ‘English only’ policy has to be illegal.
Councillor Cadogan Enright accused the Minister of ‘going off on an anti-Irish crusade.’
‘Essentially what you have is a minister going off on what I can only call an anti-Irish crusade within her department, which is manifestally illegal.’