Longford man claims his Irish language rights were 'destroyed' during his trial

Reserved judgment on Irish appeal by pensioner who put bomb on bus during Queen’s State visit

Ruaidhrí Giblin

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Ruaidhrí Giblin

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newsroom@longfordleader.ie

Longford man claims his Irish language rights were 'destroyed' during his trial

Queen Elizabeth II during her 2011 visit to Ireland and Donal Billings, who has opened an appeal against his conviction in the Irish language.

A pensioner who put a bomb on a bus bound for Dublin, and made hoax bomb threats during Queen Elizabeth’s State visit to Ireland, claims his Irish language rights were “destroyed” during his trial. 

Dónal Billings (67), whose trial at the non-jury Special Criminal Court was heard in both Irish and English, is seeking to appeal his conviction through the Irish language also.

It is the first case to be heard in Irish since the Court of Appeal was established in 2014, and requires the swearing in of two Irish interpreters. 

Billings, with an address at St Bridget’s Court, Drumlish, County Longford, was found guilty by the non-jury Special Criminal Court of possessing an explosive substance at Longford railway station car park on May 16, 2011.

He was found guilty of making false reports on May 16 and May 18, 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 May 20 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 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". Concurrent jail terms were imposed for the making of false reports. 

Counsel for Billings, Martin Giblin SC, submitted 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. The trial was in 2016. 

Mr Giblin 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. 

Mr Giblin 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. 

He said the Explosive Substances Act 1883, under which Mr Billings was convicted, had never been translated into Irish.

Mr Giblin said his client’s Irish language rights were independent of his fair trial rights, a point which seems to have been misunderstood by the Special Criminal Court, he submitted. 

Ronan Munro SC, also for Billings, contended that the charge of possession should have been thrown out at the close of the prosecution’s case.

Also advancing his arguments in Irish, which were translated for the court, Mr Munro said there was insufficient evidence for the trial court to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the bomb was placed on the bus in Longford.

Counsel for the Director of Public Prosecutions, Garnet Orange SC, said the fairness of Mr Billing’s trial was not affected by the lack of an official translation of the Explosive Substance Act or the unavailability of an Irish transcript.

Insofar as was possible, he said, the DPP facilitated Billings in his desire to have his defence conducted in Irish and the DPP was a “stranger” to any complaints raised regarding language issues during the trial.

Furthermore, Mr Orange said the circumstantial evidence created a compelling case showing Billings was guilty of possession.

Mr Orange said Billings had made four threatening phone calls that referenced bombs and busses. “Low and behold,” he said there was a bomb on a bus that very day headed for Busáras, having stopped in Longford, where Billings lived. 

He said Billings was found in possession of packaging for a sim card that was used to make the threatening phone calls. On the packaging, was the bus’ registration number and the name of the bus company in Irish. 

“Everything pointed to (Billings) as being the person who planted the explosive device” on the bus and it would have been “perverse” to have concluded otherwise, he submitted.

President of the Court of Appeal Mr Justice George Birmingham, who sat with Ms Justice Marie Baker and Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy, said the court would reserve its judgment. 

During case management last year, Mr Justice Birmingham commented that he was having enough “difficulty finding three judges to speak English” let alone Irish, in reference to the shortage of judges the court was facing at the time. 

EVIDENCE

The Special Criminal Court heard that a phonecall was made to Longford garda station on May 16, 2011. The caller said there was a bomb on a Dublin-bound Corduff travel passenger bus, a second bomb on a bus at Busaras and a third bomb at Sinn Fein headquarters in Dublin.

The Corduff travel bus was stopped on Station Rd, Maynooth, and searched by gardai, who found a suspicious object, comprised of gunpowder and a two-litre bottle of petrol, in the luggage compartment. 

Mr Justice Hunt said that Billings had placed a highly dangerous explosive on a public transport vehicle containing an innocent driver and many passengers.

This was an "outrageous, highly irresponsible and dangerous act", the judge said, which "recklessly exposed passengers, staff and members of the emergency services to very significant risk of serious injury or death".

The bomb, the judge added, was intended to give credence to further hoax calls Billings planned to make.

A further phonecall was made on May 18, threatening two mortars were set at Dublin castle for 8pm that evening. 

The time and place coincided with a state banquet in the castle for Queen Elizabeth. 

The caller said, "I'm a member of the Republican Brotherhood, Squad A. Two mortars are set for Dublin Castle at 8pm."

"This is for the Queen of blood and war of Iraq."

Searches were carried out but nothing was found. 

A third phonecall, made at 3.15pm on May 20, threatened two bombs at Cork airport. Queen Elizabeth was due to fly out that afternoon from the airport. After a search, nothing was found. 

The investigations led to Billings being identified as a suspect.

Referring to Billings’ garda interviews, Mr Justice Hunt said that the "lies told by the accused were rather obvious and unsophisticated".

Billings has two previous convictions, from Northern Ireland in 1973, for possession of explosives.