THE first signs in decades saying ‘Welcome to Northern Ireland’ have been erected at the border under a new policy from Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy.
The signs, which will inform travellers that they are leaving the Republic, are to be placed at eight key border crossings.
There is already a sign on Airport Road near Belfast International Airport which says ‘Welcome to Northern Ireland – drive on the left’ in several European languages.
A 2004 document drawn up by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) said that in the early 1990s the board had “decided unilaterally” that ‘Welcome to Northern Ireland’ signs “were essential to border crossing points as they had been in the 1960s”.
However, it said that the proposal “was met by outright hostility from almost every council due to the political sensitivities of the border areas. The proposal was eventually dropped and was not mentioned again”.
However, Mr Kennedy has now resurrected and implemented the idea and signs have already been placed at some border crossings in Fermanagh.
The signs are to be placed near at least eight key border crossings; the A1 between Newry and Dundalk; A2 between Londonderry and Letterkenny; A3 between Armagh and Monaghan; A38 between Strabane and Lifford; A4 between Belcoo and Blacklion; A46 between Donegal and Enniskillen; A5 between Aughnacloy and Monaghan; and the A509 between Enniskillen and Belturbet.
Past efforts to erect the signs have been resisted by border councils that have nationalist majorities.
Mr Kennedy said that the signs would “act as a warm welcome to tourists and other visitors to Northern Ireland”.
“Naturally they reflect the important fact that traffic is transiting from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland.”
He added that such signs are “commonplace at land borders within the European Union” and said that the signs had cost £950 which was “particularly good value for money”.
A statement from Sinn Fein said that its Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Phil Flanagan had “reacted angrily” to the road signs.
He said: “The erection of these signs has angered many living in border communities who suffer the negative impact of partition on a daily basis and a large proportion are completely opposed to the unnatural division of Ireland.
“It is my belief that Danny Kennedy’s time would be much better spent if he actually attempted to direct money into repairing our roads and improving public transport instead of squandering money on such petty, pointless political projects.”
However, on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme Mr Flanagan admitted that the sign was correct in stating that travellers were entering Northern Ireland, saying that it was “a largely accurate sign”.
And the MLA admitted that the cost of the signs was “one small aspect” of his annoyance.
DUP MLA Alastair Ross criticised Mr Flanagan’s comments and said that it was right for Mr Kennedy to erect signs which mark the border.
“Ultimately Phil Flanagan’s comments are nothing other than politically motivated,” he said.
And TUV leader Jim Allister welcomed the move, adding: “This is an issue which I raised with both the First Minister and Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister Arlene Foster when an MEP but with no success.
“I am now glad to see that Minister Kennedy has taken action.
“These signs are a useful reminder that traffic laws in the United Kingdom differ from those in the Republic and indeed it is only polite to welcome foreign nationals into our Province.”