Queen Elizabeth II during her 2011 visit to Ireland and Donal Billings, who lost an appeal against his conviction
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, has lost an appeal against his conviction which focused on Irish language rights.
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.
Billings, with an address at St Bridget’s Court, Drumlish, County Longford, was found guilty 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".
In a judgement made available in both Irish and English yesterday (Tuesday, May 28), President of the Court of Appeal Mr Justice George Birmingham 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 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 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 a conscious decision had clearly been made not to translate pre-1922 statutes.
He said 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”, it was made available to the parties as a concession.
He said there was no evidence of any disadvantage having been experienced by 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.
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 phone call 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.