Signage move brings new hope for Irish language in Belfast

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A major policy change by Belfast City Council will make Irish language street signs easier to erect.

The vote removes a decades-old policy implemented by unionists in the 1980s to make it more difficult for the installation of bilingual signs.

Ireland’s native Gaelic language has a long history of oppression under British rule. Acts of legislation by occupying authorities meant the language was banned from official use and Irish speakers were fined on occasion if they did not speak English.

Despite promises in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and 2006 St Andrews Agreement, discrimination continues in the Six Counties due to the unionist veto at Stormont. On Belfast city council, however, nationalist strength has grown and pressure from campaigners has finally convinced the moderate Alliance Party to support a measure of recognition for Irish in the city.

Very high thresholds for public support previously required for the addition of a street name plate in Irish are now gone. Previously a petition signed by one-third of residents in a street was required to trigger a survey, with support from two-thirds of residents (who declared a preference) then required for the approval of the additional street sign.

Now the survey can be triggered by just one resident or one councillor, with support of 15% of residents required to make the change.

The change in policy was opposed by councillors from the main unionist parties on the council – the DUP, UUP and PUP – but backed by the other parties.

Sinn Féin councillor Séanna Walsh said the new process “will ensure an equitable and progressive policy”.

He said: “This is a historic day as Belfast City Council has voted to adopt a new bilingual policy which will ensure the visibility of Irish street signage in the city and advance a new, progressive and shared Belfast.

“Belfast has been central to the ongoing growth of the Irish language and Gaeilge is part of the fabric of our city, as seen with the vibrant Gaeltacht quarter and the growing numbers of unionists now embracing and learning the language.”

A spokesman for the DUP in Belfast said the new policy was “grossly unfair and unbalanced” and said his party would continue to opposed Irish street signs on the basis that it is “cultural branding”.

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