Unionist students write to Queen’s chief over Irish signs

Young unionists at Queen's have expressed concern about any plans for Irish language signs at the university
Young unionists at Queen's have expressed concern about any plans for Irish language signs at the university

Young unionists at Queen’s University have written to the institution’s acting vice-chancellor to express “deep concern” at the recent public debate about the reintroduction of Irish language signs at Queen’s.

The issue arose after the university’s Irish language society, An Cumann Gaelach, wrote to Professor James McElnay about the issue and he responded by highlighting that Queen’s “seeks to create and sustain a neutral working environment”.

He went on to draw attention to the university’s equality and diversity policy, which sought to provide “a good and harmonious environment free from flags, emblems, posters, graffiti or other materials or actions or language likely to be provocative, offensive or intimidatory”.

That response angered the Irish language society, which complained, leading to Prof McElnay last week apologising unreservedly for “any offence caused” for a response which he said he recognised had “caused concern around the university’s position on the Irish language”.

Yesterday the university’s Young Unionists’ Society, which is affiliated to the Ulster Unionist Party, wrote to Prof McElnay about the matter, making clear that it had “absolutely no problem with the Irish language itself” but expressing concern about the call for bilingual signage as “a political agenda dressed up as language ‘rights’”.

The letter said: “We remain committed to equality and diversity at Queen’s, but we oppose Irish language signs because they infringe on both these values.

“We want to ensure that Queen’s University Belfast remains as a safe and welcoming place for all people, regardless of their background.

“It is our belief that the imposition of dual signage threatens to make the university into a cold house for students of the Protestant community.

“Given the historical nature of such concerns, it is our assessment that the very last thing Queen’s needs is to implement policies that further alienate Protestant students and increase the chill factor for that community. It would also alienate other students from different backgrounds, communities and countries who do not speak the language.”

The letter argued that the university ought to be a place “where ideas and opinions can be expressed openly and without fear of repercussion” but that “we, and thousands of others across the university, would find Irish language signs provocative and intimidatory”.

The letter reminded Prof McElnay that past bilingual signage was taken down in 1997 “to make [Queen’s] more open for staff and students from all backgrounds”.

It stressed that the authors “would like to make it clear that the Irish language itself is not ‘provocative, offensive or intimidatory’, but the motivation behind the erection of these signs is to further a political agenda rather than to pursue language rights” and that “we would much prefer that the university spend its money on issues that benefit all students equally, such as lecturer pensions”.