Letter: Will Belfast council's ‘second language’ street sign policy send us back to ‘the bad old days’?
The recent TUV statement on ‘second language’ street signs in Belfast and subsequent front page coverage on the subject in the News Letter (Call to probe council policy on Irish signs, November 15) may well have raised questions in the mind of the public about the huge disparity in applications for Ulster-Scots signs in comparison with Irish.
As chairman of the Ulster-Scots Language Society, I may be able to help clarify the position.
The small number of applications for Ulster-Scots signs (some 12 out of over 700) is not down to a lack of either interest in our language or confidence in achieving accurate translations. Rather, it is consistent with the reluctance of Ulster-Scots speakers to be dragged into complicity with having their language turned into a political weapon.
Since our formation in 1992, we have prioritised the enhancement of the status of Ulster-Scots and encouragement of its use in all social settings. It has been our position from the beginning that we are perfectly happy with English-only signage and public-facing documentation, knowing that virtually no-one in Northern Ireland is monoglot – that is, able to speak and understand only Irish or Ulster-Scots.
However, we have always insisted that if signage is translated into any other language it must also be rendered in Ulster-Scots, as otherwise a sizeable portion of our population is marginalised. Belfast City Council has decided that only one language other than English will be allowed on any particular sign, which exacerbates that marginalisation.
BCC’s decision to reduce the threshold for a successful application to an anti-democratic 15% was clearly intended to produce the precise effect we are seeing: saturation of the entire city with Irish language signs. In individual streets where residents are perhaps more politically aware, applications have been made for Ulster-Scots signs simply to forestall any possible application for Irish. This is not the way we want to promote and protect our language.
Of course a huge number of Belfast streets are named after individuals. It is evident that Irish translations of these names are simply rendered using Irish spelling (orthography), the end result of which looks ‘foreign’ but raises questions as to why translation is necessary.
Already Belfast rates are the highest in Northern Ireland, and responsible Ulster-Scots have no wish to add to them further by requesting what they view as unnecessary changes to street signs. We already know that the issue of an equality impact assessment has been obfuscated by the council, and we can legitimately question the associated apparent lack of forward planning.
Will the new policy lead eventually to cantonisation of Belfast into republican and unionist zones, as people move to streets in which they feel more at home – surely a move back to what we’re told were ‘the bad old days’? Is there an incipient class component? Will there be a further exodus from the city of people from a unionist background? What provision is made for immigrants in such a restricted view of identity? No answers are available.
Anne Smyth, Belfast