Unionists say Belfast City Council’s policy change on bilingual signs will damage community relations

15 per cent of street residents can request Irish language or Ulster Scots signs

Unionist politicians have deplored a decision by Belfast City Council that makes it easier to erect bilingual signs in the city.

On Thursday night councillors voted to adopt a new procedure on such signs.

Under the change of policy one street resident or their local councillor could make a proposal to erect a bilingual sign. If that proposal was supported by 15 per cent of residents on the electoral register on a particular street then it would go forward for approval by the council.

While this would mainly relate to requests for additional Irish language street signs it can also apply to Ulster Scots or Chinese or other languages.


The motion was supported by Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance, the Greens and People Before Profit. The DUP, Ulster Unionists and Progressive Unionist Party opposed the proposal.

The DUP said the new policy would cause “disharmony and resentment” and would damage community relations in areas which are “quietly mixed”.

A party spokesman explained that previously a petition signed by one-third of residents in a street was required to trigger a survey. Now the survey can be triggered by just one resident or one councillor who did not live in the street.

“Previously support from two-thirds of residents was required for approval of the additional street sign indicating support from a clear majority,” he said.

“This drastic change in council policy is grossly unfair and unbalanced. It would permit the erection of an Irish street sign where just 15 per cent of residents wanted this, even if 85 per cent of residents were opposed to it,” he added.

East Belfast Ulster Unionist Councillor Sonia Copeland said the new policy was "retrograde and divisive" and was completely at odds with the Belfast Agreement, which said that Irish should be promoted "where appropriate and where people so desire it".

“Quite how anyone thinks that 15 per cent of residents in a street is sufficient to trigger Irish street signs defies belief. By no stretch of the imagination could it be said to represent the ‘appropriate demand’ which is also referred to in the agreement,” she added.

Said Ms Copeland, “The Irish language was politicised by republicans and here it is once again regrettably being weaponised to further divide people in this country. This is the very opposite of a shared future. Surely we have had enough of ‘us’ and ‘them’?”

Progressive Unionist Party councillor Dr John Kyle said the policy change was "unwise and provocative" and "undermined community relations".

Traditional Unionist Voice Belfast representative Ron McDowell said the policy was part of an "aggressive republican agenda" which used the Irish language as a "weapon".

Sinn Féin councillor Séanna Walsh however said the new process to erect bilingual street signs in Belfast would ensure an equitable and progressive policy.

“Belfast has been central to the ongoing growth of the Irish language and Gaelige 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,” he said.

Sinn Féin and Alliance said they were not seeking to impose bilingual signs where they were not wanted.

The estimated cost of each street survey is £1,000.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times