Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland councillors under investigation over 'English-only' policy social media posts

'Complaint a distraction from policy decision and legal bill ratepayers face'.

By Jonathan Bell

Two Northern Ireland politicians are under investigation for a post on social media which allegedly disclosed confidential information about a legal challenge to their council's "English-only" street signs policy.

However, the councillor behind the initial tweet denied wrongdoing, saying there was no advice or information given about any ban on speaking about the issue, or legal proceedings that had started.

She instead described the complaint as a “distraction” from the likely “tens of thousands” in legal costs the council now faced due to its previous language policy.

The Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman confirmed to the Belfast Telegraph an investigation was under way into the social media activities of the two Sinn Fein councillors on Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council.

Anne Marie Logue, on August 28 tweeted about the council being “legally forced to revoke their discriminatory “‘English-only policy’”. It was retweeted by her Sinn Fein colleague Michael Goodman.

The post came after councillors held a private meeting to discuss a forthcoming challenge to its street signage policy.

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The code of conduct for all Northern Ireland’s councillors states a representative “must not disclose confidential information which should reasonably be regarded as being of confidential nature, without the express consent of a person authorised to give such consent, or unless required to do so by law”.

A week after the council’s meeting, officials confirmed in the High Court it was to bin the policy and instead a new “more detailed policy” would be drafted for the council to consider.

Ms Logue told the Belfast Telegraph she “strongly” rejected having done anything wrong, saying instead the complaint was a “political distraction from the tens of thousands in legal bills the council now faced” over the policy.

She said she welcomed the investigation and had no problem with it, adding that she was confident she would be cleared.

Newtownabbey residents had applied to have both English and Irish on signs for their street only to be told the council’s policy prohibited any language other than English to be used.

One resident took the council to court for judicial review of the policy claiming a breach of several pieces of legislation, including the Good Friday Agreement and St Andrews Agreement. Before the case could be heard the council performed a climb down.

The council also agreed to pay the applicant’s legal costs.

“At that meeting there was no information given, no advice as to what we could and couldn’t say, no court case, no judicial review — so how could I breach confidentiality? We were only told the policy was to be reviewed.

“As a public representative I am there to inform the public and this policy affected a big number of my constituents and the council had received complaints — they were warned there could be legal proceedings.

“It was only a week later and through the press we learned of the judicial review. And I had asked in the meeting if there was to be one. This is ridiculous and we are seeking legal advice.”

Ms Logue said she removed the tweet “just to be safe” as an internal email two days after the meeting informed all councillors of a breach of confidentiality and she was concerned at the reaction to her post.

She also said she would be seeking legal advice claiming there was information beforehand as to what the meeting was about.

“Those that should be investigated are those that came up with the policy, ignored warnings it was wrong and allowed it to go almost all the way to court,” she added.

“With barristers, legal advice and not to mention the other side ... the question now is how much money the ratepayer will have to pay for it.”

In a statement, the Public Services Ombudsman said: “We have begun an investigation into a complaint that two councillors in the Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council failed to comply with the Code of Conduct for Councillors. The complaint is in relation to an alleged breach of confidentiality.”

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