Irish language signs would ‘further dissuade unionists’ from studying at Ulster University, claim Young Unionists

Ulster University's Magee campus in Londonderry
Ulster University's Magee campus in Londonderry

The Young Unionists – the youth wing of the UUP – have voiced their opposition to proposals for the erection of Irish language signs at Ulster University, branding the move a “political stunt” that will “further dissuade unionists” from studying there.

A new bilingual signage policy which includes Irish language was approved by Ulster University Students’ Union (UUSU) earlier this week.

The motion agreed by the UUSU Council resolved that “the Students’ Union provides for bilingual signage on all directional, facilitating and welcoming signs in the Students’ Union to replace existing signage over time. And that UUSU executive lobbies the University authorities for Irish language signage on all four campuses (Belfast, Jordanstown, Coleraine and Magee).”

While the move has been welcomed by many Irish speakers as “a positive step forward”, the chairman of the Young Unionists has voiced concerns that the erection of Irish language signs would introduce “a hierarchy of equality” at the university.

“The Young Unionists oppose this (the UUSU decision) for two main reasons. Firstly, it creates a hierarchy of equality that suggests that Irish is more important than all the other languages spoken at the University, including – but not limited to – Mandarin, Polish, Portuguese and Ulster-Scots,” Joshua Lowry said.

“Secondly, this political stunt has nothing to do with promoting the use of the Irish language and everything to do with attempting to make the university a cold house for unionists, and others who do not support the republican agenda in the university.

“We feel that this will create an unwelcoming atmosphere at the university, and will further dissuade unionists from choosing to attend Ulster University.”

Mr Lowry continued: “Irish language signs were taken down from Queen’s University Belfast in 1997 because the Fair Employment Commission concluded at the time that it created a ‘chill factor’ amongst Protestant students, did not in any way ‘spread… the use of the Irish language’ and was just being used as an excuse for ‘tokenism’.

“We have written to the Vice Chancellor of Ulster University to ask that the same logic be applied, or we will be forced to report the matter to the Equality Commission.

“Ulster University has a responsibility to staff and students to ensure that it provides equality to all, and that it is a safe space for open and respectful learning and debate. It would be sheer folly to allow this university to turn into one that values one community over another.”

Responding to Mr Lowry’s allegation that the UUSU Council’s decision was a political stunt designed to make the university a cold house for unionists, a union spokesperson said: “UUSU is committed to upholding the spirit of good relations in all aspects of its activity, including in facilitating healthy debate. The motion in question was put forward by a member of the Students’ Union Council, which is a diverse body made up of students from a range of communities and backgrounds and was subsequently passed.

“As with all policy mandated by the Students’ Union Council, implementation will be subject to further discussion with the university, and in consultation with the wider student body and other relevant stakeholders.

“UUSU welcomes all of our members to get involved with our democratic structures and to shape the work that we undertake in representing the student voice at Ulster University.”

Speaking to the News Letter on Wednesday, TUV leader Jim Allister branded the UUSU Council’s move “utterly unnecessary” and claimed it was “clearly motivated by the intent to make the university a cold house for unionists and Protestants.”

However, Sinn Féin senator Niall Ó Donnghaile welcomed the decision, saying: “It’s important that we continue to promote and increase the visibility of the Irish language; linguistic diversity, representing and reflecting languages, not least indigenous languages, are positive economic and social drivers.”