Irish graphics on Council vehicles raise concerns

Published: 3 Jan 2013 13:001 comment

AN Ulster Unionist assembly member has claimed protestant employees of Fermanagh District Council are fearing "verbal and physical abuse" over the use of the Irish language on Council-owned vehicles.

One of the Fermanagh District Council vans with the dual language.

But the chief executive of Fermanagh District Council, Brendan Hegarty, says he is "not aware" of any employees raising concerns, despite what Tom Elliott is claiming.

Mr Elliott is angry that the policy, passed by the Council in June of last year to include Irish graphics on the passenger's side and the back of its electric vehicles, was not 'vetted' by the equality commission first and "bemused" by the Council's decision not to carry out an equality impact assessment before implementing it.

Mr Elliott says he is also concerned that Council officers did not brief councillors -- including his Ulster Unionist Party colleagues who voted against the policy -- about the results of the Council's 'screening matrix', the method it used to determine that an impact assessment was not required.

He has reported the matter to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.

In a letter to Mr Hegarty, chief executive of Fermanagh District Council, Mr Elliott criticised the move and added: "Given that the policy falls into Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 whereby a public authority must have due regard to the need to promise equality of opportunity between persons of different religious belief and political opinion. This policy, by the inclusion of Irish language and not including other languages such as Ulster Scots has a significant equality impact on members of the public as well as Fermanagh District Council employees from Protestant and Unionist backgrounds. It does not provide equality or parity."

The politician says he has received complaints about the matter from members of the public and Fermanagh District Council employees.

He wrote: "Members of the public have indicated that while they do not want to have [the] Irish language on the Council vehicles, if that is to happen then there should be equality by also having other languages, including Ulster Scots. I also have a complaint from a member of the Polish Community living in Fermanagh who is complaining that there is no equality in the policy for him as he has a very limited knowledge of English and no knowledge of Irish.

"There is particular concern that when using vehicles with the Irish language on them in areas that are predominantly protestant and unionist there is potential for verbal and physical abuse, which will be directed at all the Council employees."

He said the workplace "should be a neutral working environment free from symbols and emblems that are controversial and intimidating to large sections of the workforce" and added: "However, this decision of including the Irish language on the vehicles that these employees are using is adding this controversy into the workplace by means of a Council policy."

A copy of the screening matrix carried out by Fermanagh District Council has been obtained by this newspaper.

"When you look and read the screening matrix they used it actually makes a joke and nonsense of their decision not to go ahead and contact the equality commission and have an equality impact assessment," Mr Elliott told The Impartial Reporter.

One of the question asks: "Is there any evidence that different groups have different needs, experiences, issues and priorities in relation to the particular policy issue?"

The Council's answer reads: "We do not envisage that the policy will have any adverse impact on any individual or group. Those who wish to interact with public bodies through the medium of English will not be affected, and provision of services will continue unaffected."

Mr Elliott has taken exception with the Council's response, saying: "That is absolute nonsense; of course this impacts on certain groups. For example, I am sure the Orange Order wouldn't have any affiliation with the Irish language. This would also include the Unionist councillors who voted against it -- there was clear identification that there was a difference of opinion. If the Council officers can't see that, then I don't know, it just makes a nonsense of it all."

He added: "The results of the screening matrix was not relayed to the councillors and it should have been."

In response, Brendan Hegarty has told this newspaper that the Council uses the tools of screening and equality impact assessment to "assess the likely impact of a policy on the promotion of equality of opportunity and good relations."

"If our screening concludes that the likely impact of a policy is 'none', in respect of all of the equality of opportunity and/or good relations categories, we may decide to screen the policy out i.e. determine that a full Equality Impact Assessment is not required."

Asked why Fermanagh District Council did not seek advice from the equality commission first, Mr Hegarty said: "Fermanagh District Council undertook research into the implications of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the Belfast Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement, together with the Equality legislation and the Council's own Linguistic Diversity Policy. The Council also took account of the Equality Commission's response to the DCAL consultation on proposed Irish Language legislation."

Asked why council officers did not brief councillors about the results of its 'screening matrix', Mr Hegarty said: "There was an extensive discussion about equality implications at the Committee and the information provided by officers was in accordance with the outcome of the screening exercise. We also advised members that when appropriate census information was available regarding the use of the Ulster Scots language in Fermanagh we would consider the implications from an equality point of view."

In relation to council employees expressing concerns, as Mr Elliott claims, Mr Hegarty said: "No council employee has expressed any concern to me, nor am I aware of any concerns being raised through management."

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