Man convicted of possessing explosives fails in appeal centred on his Irish language rights
A man convicted of possessing explosives and making hoax bomb threats has failed in an appeal against his conviction which focused on his Irish language rights during the trial.
Lawyers for Dónal Billings, 67, whose trial at the non-jury Special Criminal Court was heard in both Irish and English, claimed their client’s Irish language rights were “destroyed” during his trial.
Mr Billings was found guilty of possessing an explosive substance at Longford railway station car park on 16 May 2011.
He was found guilty of making false reports on 16 and 18 May 2011 that bombs had been placed at Busáras and Sinn Féin’s headquarters in Dublin, and that two mortars were set for Dublin Castle.
He was also found guilty of making a false report on 20 May 2011 that two bombs had been placed in the toilets at Cork Airport. Queen Elizabeth was visiting Ireland at the time.
Sentencing him to eight-and-a-half years’ imprisonment, Mr Justice Tony Hunt, presiding, said Mr Billings was “perfectly entitled to hold a low opinion” of Queen Elizabeth and her visit to Ireland but was “not entitled to express such an opinion by engaging in criminality”.
In a judgment made available in both Irish and English yesterday, Mr Justice George Birmingham, the president of the Court of Appeal, said the appeal was based on two issues, namely sufficiency of evidence and Irish language rights.
He said the Court of Appeal had not been persuaded that the evidence against Mr Billings was insufficient to ground a conviction on any count.
Secondly, he said the court had not been persuaded that Mr Billings’ Irish language rights were disrespected to the extent that his conviction should be quashed.
Counsel for Mr Billings, Martin Giblin SC, had argued that his client’s Irish language rights were “decimated” and “destroyed” during the trial process.
Advancing his arguments in Irish, which were translated into English for the court, Mr Giblin said Billings wanted to be tried by three judges who had an ability in Irish as far back as 2011.
He said the State, including the Special Criminal Court and the DPP, had a duty to show respect to the Constitution and to personal constitutional rights. He said constitutional rights couldn’t be denied by questions of procedure.
He said the defence applied for a transcript of proceedings that recorded everything that was said in both Irish and English during the trial. A transcript was provided in the English language only, even though it was within the State’s abilities to provide one in Irish also, counsel submitted.
Mr Giblin further submitted that the Explosive Substances Act 1883, under which Mr Billings was convicted, had never been translated into Irish.
Mr Justice Birmingham said the Explosives Substance Act was passed by the Westminster Parliament. The fact it had not been translated into Irish was not the result of “inertia”, but because a conscious decision had clearly been made not to translate pre-1922 statutes.
He said Mr Billings had no right to any transcript during the trial, be it in English or Irish or any other language. Ordinarily, no transcript is made available during the majority of trials conducted in Ireland.
“Exceptionally”, he said, an overnight transcript is prepared during trials in the Central Criminal Court and the Special Criminal Court, but there was no “entitlement to be provided with such a transcript” and it was made available to the parties as a concession.
He said there was no evidence of any disadvantage having been experienced by Mr Billings and the fact a transcript was made available in the English language only did not render his trial unfair or unsatisfactory.
Mr Justice Birmingham said the arrangements put in place by the Special Criminal Court were reasonable in the circumstances. Everything that happened in English was translated into Irish and everything said in Irish was interpreted into English for everybody’s benefit, with two court-appointed interpreters alternating at hourly intervals for that purpose.
He said the DPP may carry out its functions in the official language of its own choice and was “not compelled to adopt the preferred official language of the accused person”.
He said it was open to the DPP to run a prosecution in Irish if it wishes and perhaps there were cases where it may be appropriate to do so, for example in a Gaeltacht area.
Mr Justice Birmingham, who sat with Ms Justice Marie Baker and Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy, dismissed the appeal.
Ruaidhrí Giblin, Ireland International News Agency Ltd.