Galway county councillors have been accused of causing widespread confusion over their decision to relax rules on Irish language protection and housing in the State's largest Gaeltacht area, writes Lorna Siggins, Western Correspondent
The move is a "charter for developers", according to Irish language activist Donncha Ó hEallaithe, who forecasts scrapping conditions for housing schemes in certain Connemara Gaeltacht areas will result in an increase in the cost of housing and more work for An Bord Pleanála.
However, Fianna Fáil councillor Connie Ni Fhatharta and Independent colleague Cllr Seamus Ó Cuaig, disputed this yesterday and said the aim was to balance protection of the language with the need to retain sustainable communities in isolated areas. Minister for Gaeltacht Affairs Eamon Ó Cuiv said he was "studying the wording" before commenting.
The variation was agreed at a meeting of the local authority this week. The change has a three-year life-span, as a new county plan must be agreed by 2009.
Confusingly, the variation was inserted into the settlement and rural housing element of the plan. Its cultural section retains the right to refuse planning permission for housing developments which may not "be beneficial to the usage of the language in the area". Mr Ó hEallaithe said this could result in far more schemes being turned down - the opposite of what was being proposed by the councillors - and more work for Bord Pleanála. The appeals board reprimanded Galway County Council for its lax approach to the language clause.
The variation involves three approaches to housing of more than two units. First, the language conditions - including a test for purchasers or tenants and an enurement clause preventing sale to anyone but an Irish speaker - will no longer apply to areas where less than 20 per cent of the population speak Irish on a daily basis, according to 2002 census data (Claregalway for example).
Second, the conditions will still apply to Gaeltacht areas under pressure close to Galway city, extending from Barna to just before Carraroe. The proportion of houses affected will be determined by reference to Irish speakers in 2002 census data.
Third, Gaeltacht areas outside the boundary covered by the Galway transportation planning study (GTPS) will no longer be subject to the conditions. Instead, these more-isolated areas will be protected by restricting sale of houses in housing estates to "local people as defined in the county development plan": people who are employed, self-employed or creating employment in the area; returning emigrants and their immediate family; and Irish speakers.
The change has been criticised by Airdeall, the Irish language umbrella group. It has warned the changes remove protection for Irish as a community language in some of the most vulnerable Irish-speaking areas in the State.