Ben Lowry: Belfast's extremist policy on Irish street signs is unfolding just as republicans wanted it to unfold
The policy makes it easy to change street signs across Belfast from English only to joint English and Irish. It is part of a low-level republican culture war that increasingly has the support of people in the political centre ground and even of some unionists – people who themselves have no interest in perpetuating a culture war but who (naively, I would say) deny there is such a war and insist that such usage of Gaelic is harmless.
Yet when Belfast’s radical new street sign policy was passed in 2021, under soft talk about language rights, diversity and equality, some of us felt that it was all about putting up Irish signs across Northern Ireland's capital city. The intention was to Gaelicise the feel of Belfast, and to end any sense that overseas visitors have of arriving in a classically British industrial city, distinct in feel to Dublin (tourists often liken us to Manchester, Leeds etc).
There are already high hundreds of bids to introduce Irish signs across the city, and this will become thousands, until they are all over the city – as is the intention. It is a foretaste of where an Irish language act will lead and why the Ulster Unionist Party was right to oppose such legislation (although I doubt the party, which is now keen to be upbeat and liberal and cross-community, is inclined to remind voters of its then opposition).
I believe that we can deduce that the new language policy has extremist and provocative intent from the fact that if the goal had merely been to cater for areas in which demand for Gaelic was strong, then it was obviously not needed. For a quarter of a century Belfast has had generous provision for the miniscule demand for Irish signage. In 1998 it adopted a sensible policy that any resident could apply for a dual language sign in their street provided it was backed by least a third of the street’s residents. The bid would then be approved by the council if, after a consultation, it was supported by two thirds of the street’s residents.
This meant an application did not even get off the ground until it was clear there was at least substantial minority support in a particular street and did not actually result in dual signage in there was proven substantial majority backing in the street. Areas that unequivocally wanted such signs got them, but there was no chance of Gaelic proliferating in areas where most people were opposed. Think of the importance of such a safeguard: imagine the outcry if obviously and deliberately British symbolism was imposed in areas where it was not wanted.
The 1998 policy explains why, for years, there have been Irish signs in parts of Belfast, the most obvious of which the picture in the sign above at Cromac Street, in the city centre. But this fair and moderate policy did not bring about the republican goal of Irish signs all over the city. The policy applies to all languages, but as everyone knows few Chinese, Polish etc activists are pushing their language. In 2012, a bid to change the two thirds consultation majority to a bare majority did not come to pass. .
The architects of the Belfast street sign policies also know there is no unionist appetite for signs in Ulster Scots. I remember the old public records office in Balmoral had trilingual signs, including embarrassing ones pointing people to the ‘aitin hoose’ (cafe).
However, the dual language (ie Gaelic) policy did not have the result that Irish republicans wanted. Why not? Well, because demand for Irish street signage, like demand for Irish language school places and demand for learning for Irish itself to an advanced standard, is still low across Northern Ireland, as it is low across the whole island (the forced language policy having failed so embarrassingly). Cutting the threshold for support for dual signage in Belfast from two thirds to a majority would still have been too high for republicans to achieve their aims, so now it has been cut to 15%.
But the new policy does not merely have an outrageously low threshold, it also requires only one resident to request a dual signage (equal Gaelic and English). If none does, an elected representative for the electoral area can do so, or a developer. Then it goes to consultation needing only 15% support in the street. But the policy has been diluted even more than that threshold implies – the minimum 15% support no longer applies to the whole street, but only to the percentage of households who have replied.
As the policy makers very well know, people of goodwill often fail to reply to surveys because they are busy in their lives or forget to do so or miss a deadline, even if they intended to engage. The new policy means that a Sinn Fein councillor who represents a mixed electoral area can apply for Gaelic in a street of 40 people, and, if only 20 people reply to the consultation and a mere 15% of that number support it – three people – it it will pass.
The council is hiding behind a discretion it has to turn down dual signage to pretend that there is a robust system to prevent Irish signage in such circumstances, but I predict that it will be of minimal effect.
I believe that the overall Irish republican aim was to make it possible for Gaelic activists to get signs into areas where there is barely any support – because the goodwill of apathetic people will be misinterpreted as support for Irish. The deluge of requests for Irish language signs was wholly predictable.
It will only get worse, and is the template for Irish language usage across NI. The recent Gaelic act, while not as hardcore as activists wanted, opens the wedge to that.
In any normal political environment, unionists would obviously oppose this extremist policy, but the Alliance Party, SDLP, Greens and all non aligned parties would too. When it was unveiled unionists, including the DUP were scathing and the TUV still is. But now the main parties are quieter, so terrified are they of being unfairly labelled bigots.
Alliance insisted at the time that it would not support a blank cheque for sudden changes all over Belfast, costing ratepayers a fortune. But that implies it is OK for this policy to unfold to its inevitable conclusion, of Irish signs in almost all streets across the city, minus a handful of loyalist ones, including in happily mixed environments, so long as it happens at a gradual pace.