One council has offered an assurance that bilingual signs will not be erected in areas where they are not wanted, after an MLA accused it of a campaign of marking out nationalist territory.
David McNarry, UKIP MLA for Strangford, contacted the News Letter to complain that Down District Council was embarking on a programme of changing signage to be written in English and Irish.
Though he said the decision had been taken some time ago he had recently found out about it.
He said his fear was that majority-unionist places like Saintfield and Ballynahinch would see Irish signs as standard.
“The worry is that towns like Saintfield won’t know what’s hit them when these signs start going up,” he said.
Nearby Newry and Mourne had adopted a similar policy, which he said could mean creating “from Saintfield right through to Newry one massive republican/nationlist belt, pushing Irish language in terms of signage”.
“They won’t need to put flags up when they’re mapping out territory. In effect that’s what they’re doing – mapping out a big, massive territory.”
However, according to Down District Council the changes appear to be less dramatic. The latest development stems from a decision taken earlier this year by the council to amend its policy.
It has created a new bilingual logo, and has changed its approach to the Irish language on street signs.
A spokeswoman for the council said they in fact had had a bilingual street name policy for years, but only for areas which had requested it and had a two-thirds majority in favour. The difference now was that the council would include bilingual signs as standard on key council buildings, promotional leaflets and on street signs (although it does not actually have control over many signs).
But this will only happen when they need to be replaced, said a council spokeswoman, adding: “If it’s not welcome in that area they won’t get one. And where signs have to be replaced ... and it’s in an area that’s welcoming it then it would have bilingual language on it.”
She said the main change was they now had a bilingual logo to be used on all their marketing.
“There’s an EU directive which states that local authorities must promote minority languages and the council had taken legal advice from their legal team and were advised that we should comply with the EU directive.”