Tuesday 26 September 2017 10:17:32 AM

UUP Leave Chamber At Council Meeting Protest Over Irish Language
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THE Down District UUP Councillors left the chamber during a full council meeting last night just before a presentation on the Irish langauge.

As East Belfast Mission Irish Language Officer  Linda Ervine prepared for her talk on “The Hidden History of Protestants and the IrishLanguage,” UUP councillors Dessie Patterson, Walter Lyons and Robert Burgess removed themselves from the chamber.

Linda Ervine explained that many people in the protestant/unionist.loyalist tradition who had worked in the H&W shipyard or fought in the First World War were Irish speakers as were many religious and political leaders in the nineteeth century. She added that 95% of place names in East Belfast were in fact derived from Irish and emphasised that the Irish language was spoken across all sections of the community citing a loyalist mural saying in Irish saying  ‘Ní ghéilfimid’ (N0 Surrender).

Down District Council signage showing use of Irish as well as English.

A shared space? Down District Council signage showing use of Irish as well as English.

“There has been a massive interest in the Irish language again in East Belfast and across the North. I started up a small class some time ago and now there are ten running. There are people from both sides of the community at these classes including from the Short Strand and it does not affect their political views.”

Councillor Walter Lyons explained the UUP position saying: “We recognise what Linda Irvine was trying to do in talking about shared heritage, language and culture etc but our protest really was to indicate to the nationalist councillors pursuing their political agenda of the Irish language in our Council which we are clearly not happy with.

“We have seen issues over the past 18 months recently regarding the Union flag and now the Irish language is embroiled at a political level in our chamber. When our new Down Civic Centre was built, around £30,000 was spent on dual language signs in English and Irish. We therefore decided to make our protest and felt that we are acting in the interest of the ratepayer.

“In any case, this presentation would have been better made at a Culture and Economic Development Committee level in Council and not to a full Council especially before the coming election. The Irish language has again become a political football for nationalists. This was in fact our last full council meeting and we thought that the valuable time could have been much better utilised on other important issues in the interest of the ratepayer.”

However, Sinn Féin Councillor and Irish language activist Eamonn Mac Con Midhe has slammed their protest saying: “Once again we have seen a complete lack of disrespect by unionists in Down District Council toward the Irish language. To walk out of a presentation being given by someone from the unionist culture just because it is in relation to Irish is nothing short of a disgrace and highlights the discriminatory attitude of these councillors and their party toward the Irish language.”

“These councillors have not even made a valid political point in the action that they took. Are they really trying to suggest that the ratepayers of Down District Council, who may wish to have Irish included on signage, should not have the right to do so through a democratic process as is the current procedure?
“It is ironic that had the Ulster Unionist Councillors stayed in council they would have heard about the rich and vibrant history of protestantism and the Irish language. Unionism has nothing to fear from the language and they should all take a leaf out of Linda’s book and embrace the language as she has done, rather than attempting to politicise it in this way.”
Councillor Billy Walker was also concerned about the timing of the presentation and added: “If a Protestant person wants to learn the Irish language that is their perogative. But it should not be shoved down their throat. I personally have no interest in the Irish language.It should not be foisted upon us.
“Everyone quite simply has the right to learn the Irish language if they wish. But in our Council it has been very trying at times when we have been confronted by this. It may have been better if the UUP had stayed in the chamber and fought their corner. I can remember a debate three years ago regarding the St Patrick’s Trail when the NITB were challenged over their single language policy (English) on signs – I argued in favour of their policy and today the NITB still continues with this policy not going with dual language signage.”
Councillor Cadogan Enright, also a fluent Irish speaker, added: “This was an excellent presentation and it is important we de-politicise the Irish language and make it available to everyone.”

UKIP Down District representative Alan Lewis has also dismissed the Ulster Unionist Party’s opposition to the Council’s Irish language policy as a election stunt.

Mr Lewis said: “Where were the Ulster Unionist Party when it came to replying to the public consultation on the council’s bilingual policy? I’ll tell you where they were. Like the DUP they were nowhere to be seen. Where were they when it came to referring the matter to the Equality Commission? Again, they were nowhere to be seen.

“It defies belief that at a time when over 40% of people cannot afford to heat their homes and when the poorest people in our society have seen their household income fall by 16%, that the council continues to waste time and ratepayers’ money promoting a language that 89% of people cannot understand. That’s why I’ve chosen to speak out against this  nonsense to the Equality Commission, in a bid to get it halted before any more ratepayers’ money is squandered on it.

“The great and the good on the Council prattle on continuously about a shared future and shared space. Yet at the same time they appear intent on making the Council a cold house for Unionists through a policy which is inherently discriminatory. The policy states that ‘Staff who speak Irish will be encouraged to use the language at point of contact‘, creating the ludicrous prospect of ratepayers being welcomed to their own Council, by someone speaking a language most of us don’t understand and have no interest whatsoever in learning.”