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Belfast council row after Irish language signs at greenway ‘called in’ by unionists

An attempt to stop Irish language signage on the new Forth Meadow Greenway has been described as part of a unionist “drip drip attack” on the language in Belfast.
Belfast council row after Irish language signs at greenway ‘called in’ by unionists
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During the April full meeting of Belfast City Council it was revealed the “call-in” mechanism of local government law had been used to check a decision, made away from the public during restricted items, surrounding the Forth Meadow Community Greenway.

At the council’s Strategic Policy and Resources Committee last month, a majority of elected representatives carried through a decision to have English and Irish signage at the Gaeltacht parts of the greenway, and on the seven metre sculpture at 385 Springfield Road.

The council minutes state: “(The committee) agreed the proposals in respect of signage for the Forth Meadow Community Greenway, subject to the beacons, information panels and the directional finger post signs located in the Gaeltacht Quarter area (that is Falls Park, Bog Meadows, Westlink to City Centre and Springfield Park/Dam) all being in dual-language, that is, English and Irish.

“(The committee) also noted that it had previously been agreed that the information plaque on the ‘Carry Each Other’ sculpture would be in English/Irish, but it was proposed that this is now in English/Irish and Ulster Scots. The committee agreed accordingly.”

This decision was subsequently “called in” by unionists – information relating to the number of elected representatives who called it in and the party/parties they represent has not been furnished by the council.

According to local government law, only 15 percent of a council is required to call-in a decision, setting off independent legal examination, and potentially an equality impact assessment, then a redetermination of the decision.

If the call-in is seen as competent, it will go back to the full council, where the original proposal has to then pass an 80 percent threshold of the vote to be successful.

Councillors have to give reasons for any call-in, explaining why they believe the decision “was not arrived at after a proper consideration of the relevant facts and issues” and why they believe the decision “would disproportionately affect adversely any section of the inhabitants of the district.”

Part of the full council meeting was in restricted session, away from the public and press. No unionist politicians made reference to the call-in during open session, nor did Sinn Féin.

People Before Profit Councillor Fiona Ferguson, referred to the call-in, as well as a long-delayed decision around dual language at the Olympia Leisure Centre, and an EQIA relating to that.

She said: “I am deeply concerned that the way the Irish language is treated within this council is having a negative impact on the language within the city, and in particular on gaeilgeoir in all corners of this city.

“It seems that not one decision can be taken on the Irish language without a call-in, an EQIA being forced. It is my opinion that this council through this process is actively sectarianising the Irish language within this city. The council is promoting the false narrative that the Irish language is inherently divisive or sectarian.”

She added: “It is unfortunate that we will have to go into a new council term to pick up a draft policy on the Irish language strategy in the city. I would like to see a draft policy that from the outset adopts the council position, worked through by councillors, agreed on a working group, to say that the Irish language is something that we will promote, and treat equally across this city.

“Therefore as the norm signage in this city on leisure centres, on new developments will be bilingual, and will have the Irish language. And we put a burden on the other side to prove that there is some sort of negative impact in that.”

SDLP Councillor Carl Whyte told the chamber: “I find it extraordinary that (this happens) a couple of days after Irish language signage in County Derry was essentially stolen and vandalised – public signage put up by ratepayers, by a local authority similar to ours. I’m referring to the signage removed from Tobermore, which in Irish means “Place of the Big Well”.

“I want to express my absolute shock at a response from councillors here, to a simple proposal made to have signage erected on the new greenway, reflecting townlands and places in Belfast, most of which come from the Irish language.”

He said the call-in was “unlikely to succeed”, and added: “This is a constant drip-drip attack on the language. That’s how it feels if you are an Irish speaker, a GAA player and a GAA fan. When you come into this council, you open your email, you see challenge after challenge.”

Last month Alliance and nationalist parties had bitter exchanges at Belfast City Council over a proposal to put up Irish language street signs across the whole of the West Belfast Gaeltacht Quarter.

Sinn Féin accused Alliance of “slowing down” the Irish language along with the DUP, after they opposed a proposal to treat the Gaeltacht as one bulk application, rather than go through the area street by street.

The Forth Meadow Community Greenway is funded by the EU’s PEACE IV Programme, and is intended to be a physical representation of the peace process in Belfast and to promote reconciliation between interface communities.

The £5 million project is seeing the creation of a 12km route from Clarendon Playing Fields in the North of the City, through the West to the new Transport Hub in the city centre.

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