Council's £150k for Irish language plan is 'madness'
A row has erupted over plans by Newry, Mourne and Down Council to spend an estimated £150,000 of ratepayers' money next year to expand its Irish language strategy.
The cash will go towards the continued application of dual street names, training staff to answer phone calls and written correspondence in Irish and printing all of its main documents in bilingual format.
One of the council's DUP councillors, William Walker, has branded the strategy a "ludicrous indulgence" at a time of fiscal restraint.
The council's Irish Language Unit's budget for this year is £142,788.
Mr Walker said he is concerned this could rise in the next financial year.
He added that to continue this level of expenditure would be "sheer madness given that there are more Polish and Lithuanian speakers than Irish in the district," he said.
"It's completely over the top. When you look at the breakdown of languages in the district you'll see Irish is fourth. It is the main language of just 0.22% of the district's population. More people use Polish and Lithuanian as their main language in the area," said Mr Walker.
He added: "I am not opposed to the Irish Language Strategy, but the fact is that everyone is having to tighten their belts and I don't think this is the time to be spending money on this. At a time of financial restraint it really is a ludicrous indulgence. I'm pretty sure a lot of ratepayers would be able to suggest better things for their money to be spent on."
However, Sinn Fein councillor Barra O Muiri said he was "surprised and disappointed" by the objection to the strategy. He added that unionists in the district "would do better to engage with the language", rather than "seeking at every opportunity to run down a key element of their own heritage".
Mr O Muiri said that talk about the cost of the strategy was "nonsense" as the council has yet to agree its next Irish language budget.
"We in Sinn Fein make absolutely no apology for seeking to uphold and defend the rights of Irish language speakers," said Mr O Muiri.
"The council's agreed bi-lingual strategy follows on from the policies of the two previous legacy councils, which both recognised the need for inclusion of the Irish language in order to fulfil our own equality policies.
"It's also in keeping with the recommendations from the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages which recognises the importance of Irish in the north and puts an onus on us to protect it," he added.
The Sinn Fein man also said that Irish is "very much a vibrant living language in the district" and forms a key part of the council's tourism strategy.
He added: "The Irish language is not a nationalist or republican issue. Unionists in Newry, Mourne and Down would do better to engage with the language, as they do in areas such as east Belfast, rather than seeking at every opportunity to run down a key element of their own heritage."
This year's budget for the Council's Irish Language Unit is £142,788, the majority of which is for salaries. The remainder of the funding is for events, advertising, translations and training.
The Council's proposed Irish Language Strategy, which is to be discussed at full council next month, aims to "deliver linguistic equality for all who avail of, or provide, council services."
The Strategy includes the continued application of dual street names, moves to ensure that written correspondence received in Irish will be responded to in Irish and phone calls from an Irish speaker will be answered or returned by an Irish speaking member of staff.
It will also aim to provide all main council documents in bilingual format, issue press releases in Irish for the Irish language median and include an Irish format of the council's website.