A High Court judge has thrown out a legal bid to overturn a council block on putting Irish signs up on a Belfast street.
Mr Justice Horner dismissed all grounds of challenge to the denial of dual-language plates at Ballymurphy Drive in the west of the city. He rejected claims that it was unreasonable to have a policy requiring a two-thirds majority of households to declare themselves in favour of a second street name.
"Unfortunately, in Northern Ireland's deeply divided society, many on each side of the political and cultural divide, rightly or wrongly, see the other's language, whether it be Irish or Ulster Scots, as associating that community with a particular political point of view," the judge said.
“In those circumstances, it cannot be unreasonable to require clear and convincing evidence on the part of those who occupy the street that they want an additional street name plate in another language apart from English.”
Lawyers for Ballymurphy Drive resident Eileen Reid argued that the refusal was unlawful and in breach of an obligation to promote Irish. Out of 92 eligible residents on the street canvassed by Belfast City Council, 52 confirmed they wanted Irish signs, with only one opposed. But because the other 39 did not respond to the survey, the two-thirds requirement was not met.
According to Ms Reid’s legal team, these non-returned votes were wrongly counted as being opposed to dual signs. The court heard how a city council policy drawn up in 1995 estimated it would cost around £200,000 to provide second language street plates over a five-year period.
Another £30,000 a year would be required for additional staff and resources around the administrative systems and procedures. Three years later, the policy was implemented on the basis that it should be “reactive in nature”.
As part of the process, the council retains an overriding discretion in deciding whether a street name plate should be erected.
Between 1998 and 2013, 180 applications were made. Out of those, 144 were approved and 34 were not progressed due to insufficient responses to council surveys. Belfast is one of 14 councils in Northern Ireland to have a dual language policy.
Mr Justice Horner stressed that he was not concerned with the merits of whether there should be an Irish sign at Ballymurphy Drive. He was only examining whether the council’s process was lawful.
The “inaction” of Ms Reid’s advisors “precluded the council from exercising its discretion” on the issue, the judge held.
Rejecting all other arguments in the judicial review challenge, he described the contention that non-voters should not have been taken into account as “fundamentally flawed”.
He added: “Those who did not return their surveys can have been in no doubt as to the consequences of their inaction.”