Down Council Resolves Irish Language and Signage Row
The meeting at Down District Council to discuss a way forward for the new signage for the St Patrick’s Way tourism project was a combination of cloak and dagger committee work with full frontal assaults between parties. But after a very fraught meeting, it was finally agreed – after two years of chamber conflict – to accept the proposal not to use the Irish language in the new tourist signs.
The row has simmered in Council in recent months after Sinn Féin’s Eamonn Mac Con Midhe would not accept a single language policy for the introduction of the prominent information signs. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board who are funding the project have a policy which is a single language policy – in English only. This NITB policy position has been strongly contested by Councillor Mac Con Midhe. A letter from the NITB to the Council became the centre of a complicated process at the recent Council meeting when Council officers were involved in explaining the legal opinion from a barrister. After an hour of ‘In Committee’ discussion by Council with press excluded, and the legal intricacies examined, the meeting then went back into its open mode.
A Council officer had recommended that for a number of legal reasons it was best to proceed with single language signs and he indicated that the signage in the other three Councils involved in the tourist project – Newry and Mourne, Ards Borough and North Down – was only in English. These councils had already agreed to proceed with a single language policy on this.
Sinn Féin’s Councillor Eamon Mac Con Midhe has been a staunch advocate for the Irish language on many occasions and indicated that Newry and Mourne has a bi-lingual policy of English and Irish. However, he maintained that the five new signs if in English only at the entrances to Downpatrick may have to be replaced in two years time when Down District and Newry and Mourne Councils finally merge. But he agreed to compromise on having these five signs estimated at a cost of £1,000 each in English if the Council backed the dual language approach for the other signs. He said: “Putting up English only signs outside Downpatrick will just be a waste of money. They will have to be done eventually in English and Irish. So I would ask Council to consider this only as a compromise.”
However, DUP Party Leader William Dick said: “I understand the aspirations for having dual language signage. But our legal opinion has explained it would be unwise for us to proceed down this road. If we do, we will lose our £85,000 share of the total funding of around £200,000 across the other councils. And we will have to fund it ourselves. We accept the recommendation of the officer that the signs be in English only.” Councillor Dick proposed that the Council proceed with using the English language only and accept the terms of the funding available from the NITB. Councillor Cadogan Enright then added that the council agree with Councillor Dick’s proposal by that this should be noted that the Council is doing this “under duress” from the NITB and the council should write to the NITB reflecting this.
Councillor Billy Walker (DUP) said: ‘This matter has been banded around the chamber for a long time. I personally have spoken to the NITB about this and they said to qualify for the grant it can only be in English. We really do need to proceeed now with this project. The funds have to be spent by March. If Sinn Féin and also Councillor Enright want to take the NITB to Court that is heir perogative.”
Councillor Robert Burgess (UUP) said: “We have been very slow to take this decision. We need to waken up.” The frustration was rife across the council chamber and there were heated exchanges between councillors.
Council Chief Executive John Dumigan said: “Newry and Mourne Council’s policy is the same as ours. You only put signs up in Irish where it is welcome.”
Councillor Dessie Patterson (UUP) said: “I am all for tourism but already another three council’s have agreed to use English only. We all need to cooperate to promote tourism.”
Councillor Willie Clarke added: “Down District Council has a policy of the dual use of English and Irish. There is a progressive realisation policy already voted on by Council in a democratic manner. We would be doing a disservice to the people of this district. There is a judicial review under way through the Council for the Administration for Justice at the moment. A single language signage is a clear break of our policy.”
Councillor Walter Lyons (UUP) said: “The Irish language is an emotive subject. It is not welcome is some places in my ward. Simply the Irish language is being used to batter unionists. There is concern among the unionist people in my constituency in this respect. The Good Friday Agreement is dead and gone, we have to accept that.”
Deputy Chairperson Maria McCarthy called the Councillors to vote and and the motion and amendment were carried by eight votes to seven, with three abstentions. The project can now be proceeded with operationally by the council officers.
A possible Section 75 (equality) challenge may arise from this decision, but the council has acted in line with its legal advice.