An unholy row has erupted in Cookstown over the erection of Irish language signage at the entrance to the town’s cemetery.
Ulster Unionist Party councillor Trevor Wilson said he has been contacted by numerous people who are “deeply annoyed” by the signage.
“Many Protestants feel that this is a deliberate attempt by Sinn Fein/SDLP to force Irish on a community they know has very little or no interest in it,” he said.
“They know it will offend, that it will hurt, that it will anger many people, yet this is what they seem intent on doing.”
But Sinn Fein group leader on the council, Ronan McGinley, hit back, describing the Cookstown UUP man’s comments as “inflammatory”.
“The suggestion that anyone would be offended by an Irish language sign at a cemetery is yet another example of stubborn opposition to anything that reflects the Irish identity,” he said.
And SDLP councillor Malachy Quinn said he was “saddened” by Mr Wilson’s comments.
“He says that many ‘Protestants’ have been angered by the sign, I wasn’t aware that language belongs to a religious domination and to suggest so only plays into a sectarian divide,” he said.
“Indeed it’s a language spoken throughout the island and beyond by people of all colours and creeds.”
Mr Wilson went on to accuse SF/SDLP of insensitivity towards the unionist population. “Of what advantage is Irish language signage at the cemetery entrance? Absolutely none. They care not one jot who they offend or hurt and I can assure you the promotion of Irish language in this way is set to escalate throughout Mid Ulster.
“Of course, there is no reason to fear a language. However, when it is used as a political weapon, knowing that it will hurt and offend at least one section of the community and heighten tension, then the motive behind the decision to erect Irish language signage on all council property is questionable and the issue of community relations seems to be of limited importance,” he added.
Mr McGinley said: “Mid Ulster Council adopted a dual language signage policy in March 2017 following demand from those who live and pay rates within the council area.
“The development of the bilingual signage scheme was an inclusive process, with all parties able to contribute and express their viewpoint.”
Mr Quinn pointed out that Mid Ulster has had a dual-language policy for all its property for the past four years.
“It comes as a bit of a surprise that Mr Wilson is raising the issue now at this time of year, on a site used by all religions and none,” he added.
“I find it very hard to believe that anyone is offended by a language but perhaps it’s just because it’s the Irish language? It seems to me that this statement is more about stoking tensions than helping to solve them and I urge Mr Wilson to join the SDLP in helping to ease fears and tensions in Mid Ulster.”
A council spokesperson said: “In its Irish language policy, which was agreed in December 2015, the council committed to the erection of signage in both English and Irish on its properties and the new signage at council cemeteries is a part of the phased implementation of the signage programme.”