Nationalist council under fire over Irish signs in mainly unionist area

Placing council-imposed Irish language signage in a predominately Protestant village is treating unionists with contempt, it has been claimed.

Tuesday, 26th November 2019, 7:00 am
The dual language sign above the main entrance at Saintfield Community Centre

Both DUP and Ulster Unionist representatives in Saintfield said the overwhelming nationalist Newry, Mourne and Down Council has repeatedly “slapped down” unionists voicing concerns – and won’t give the small unionist contingent so much as “the crumbs from the table”.

The councillors have also complained that the signage at Saintfield Community Centre would have been more acceptable if the first language used was English, in keeping with the reality of everyday usage.

William Walker of the DUP said: “I have received a lot of complaints about the bilingual signs in Saintfield.

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The sign adjacent to every disabled parking space at Saintfield Community Centre

“What’s really annoying people is that Irish is used as the first language and English is second. Maybe unionists could have accepted it if it had English first and Irish second.

“I have asked the council questions around how many people actually come to the council seeking information in Irish, but when I raise these issues I am slapped down and called a bigot. It saddens me as well as angering me.”

Cllr Walker described the council’s attitude as counterproductive.

“The unionist population is 24% of the council area but we are not even getting crumbs from the table,” he said.

Signage behind the reception desk at Saintfield Community Centre

“There are four UUP, three DUP and one independent unionist on the council with 33 mainly nationalist and republicans. This is a waste of ratepayers’ money in my opinion. They are throwing money at Irish hand over fist.”

Ulster Unionist Robert Burgess said: “They [council] didn’t have to put those signs up. They should just have put up a sign saying ‘Saintfield Community Centre’. There are a lot of people out there annoyed by it.

“There are a few people in Saintfield, who are from a unionist background, who would be in support of the Irish language and people learning it, but when it’s stuck up against people’s faces where they don’t want it then it’s not productive.

Cllr Burgess also said the unionist councillors have no real voice on the nationalist dominated council.

The new Saintfield Community Centre

“When unionists raise issues like this they are not taken seriously. Absolutely not.

“In total we have only eight unionist councillors which isn’t even enough to have a ‘call-in’ [on contentious decisions]. We would need ten – and the Alliance Party doesn’t support us.

“The council has a dual language policy, which we have no problem with, but this is part of the United Kingdom and a unionist area – and there’s only one unionist area in Newry, Mourne and Down, so this is just like giving us a black eye.

“All of the unionist family voted against it and, with hindsight, I think the SDLP could have done more.”

Cllr Burgess said unionists have spoken out against the signage in Saintfied but have been ignored.

“When it comes to street naming, they say that under the policy it’s only where the people support it that signs will be in Irish, but in this case the people of Saintfield were never asked they just got it – and there’s no difference.”

A spokeswoman for the council said: “Newry, Mourne and Down District Council erects signage in accordance with the Council’s agreed Bilingualism Policy and corporate brand identity guidelines.”

• Saintfield is around 10 miles from both Belfast and Downpatrick and lies at the northern boundary of the Newry, Mourne and Down council’s area of responsibility.

Only eight unionists sit on the council – greatly outnumbered by 27 nationalists, two Alliance and four independent members.

Historically, the village was a hotbed of United Irishmen activity and was the scene of a Presbyterian-led victory over the British in 1798.

When the new leisure facility was opened earlier this year the signage around the building was placed in accordance with the council’s ‘English first’ policy. Reacting to the signs, some unionists placed to Union flags on lampposts at the entrance to the centre on the Belfast Road although village – of just over 3,000 residents – has been a model of good community relations.