Four of the 11 new ‘super’ councils could be set to have Irish as the first language on their logos and literature, according to the two nationalist parties.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP are both in favour of the ‘Irish first’ policy. This means that the Irish version will appear alongside the English version, with the Irish language version either to the left of the English, or above it.
At Newry, Mourne and Down council, Sinn Fein councillor Barra O Muiri brought forward the motion, which was passed by 14 votes for to five votes against. The council has a strong nationalist majority.
But unionist councillors have now requested a legal opinion alleging “discrimination” against English-only speakers. They have also linked the move to the recent council decision to continue to name a park in Newry after IRA hunger striker Raymond McCreesh.
“Following on from the likes of the McCreesh park decision, the intent to create a cold house for Unionists will be clear for all to see,” said DUP Group Leader Garth Craig. “People should take confidence from the unity of purpose their representatives are showing to oppose this attempt to discriminate.”
Right-wing UKIP councillor Henry Reilly said unionists in the area were “being made to feel like second-class citizens”, and complained that some nationalist councillors “don’t even speak a word of Irish”.
Mr O Muiri has defended the move.
“There is absolutely nothing for anyone to fear from enhancing and protecting the Irish Language in a way which will enable it to make a lasting and meaningful contribution towards building a strong and united community,” he said recently. “It will not in any way threaten or displace the English Language but sit alongside it as a living and vibrant language.”
Independent nationalist councillor Brendan Curran said that he hoped the decision would help people use Irish more, but added: “The SDLP and Sinn Fein are grandstanding and using it as a political football as I know that they are not too active in organising and supporting Irish language classes in the area.”
As the ten other new councils decide their logos ahead of taking power on April 1, both Sinn Fein and the SDLP have said they will promote a similar policy at other local authorities. Fermanagh and Omagh, Derry and Strabane, and Mid-Ulster also have a nationalist majority, while Alliance holds the balance of power in Belfast. However, unionists have a majority in six other councils in the North.
The DUP has described the bilingual policy at local council level as a political stunt by nationalists. The party has always blocked moves by nationalists to promote the Irish language in the Six Counties, and has vowed to veto a proposed Irish Language Act due to come before the Stormont Assembly later this year.
The DUP’s deputy mayor of Derry, Gary Middleton, said the efforts would be “a waste of time and money”.
“There is a significant Polish community here with more fluent speakers than Irish,” he said. “Unfortunately this has been used as a political football. I think this is simply down to the fact this is an election year.”