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Signage plan an expensive attempt to land a blow in culture war

By Malachi O'Doherty

Published 17/11/2015

What is a language for?

If it is a means of communication, then Councillor William Walker is right. There are more Polish speakers than Irish speakers in the Mournes and Armagh. And they may indeed be helped by signage in their native languages, directing them to Cullyhanna.

But a language is for other things too, and one of them is the expression of identity.

The bilingual street signs in Dublin are just a bit of English and a bit of gobbledygook to most people. But they do say that this place is Irish.

And they are quaint, and people even learn a few words of Irish from them.

And you can see the same kind of double naming of streets in Brittany, which has its own Celtic language.

So why not in Newry or Crossmaglen? Why not indeed.

In some ways it seems a perfectly charming idea and one would love to believe that the motivation was entirely free of malice or unneighbourliness.

Coming just after the attempt of Derry and Strabane council to change the name of the city from Londonderry to Derry it looks more like part of a general project to slough off any suggestion that the border counties are on the British side of that border.

A consequence of this, particularly if other western councils join in, will be to convey the impression to tourists that the border has shifted North and East.

Old chauvinists from the hills and the hill towns will be able to indulge the fantasy that indeed it has.

In short, it is pulling a stroke, effectively declaring that council areas have national characteristics and identities which have to be preserved and endorsed in road signage and the publications of the council.

It also effectively sidesteps the refusal of unionists to support the Irish Language Act which Sinn Fein trusts it was promised under the St Andrews Agreement.

So this is essentially another move in the culture war.

And if you have lived in the border area and harboured resentment all your life that the street names were in a foreign language - the same foreign language as the newspaper you read and the television programmes you watch - then you may be assuaged in that umbrage by the changes.

But most of us will think that this was never really all that important to you and that the deeper satisfaction you get from Gaelic signage is that it annoys the Prods.

Which may seem fine if you live also with a sense that the Prods were as eager to annoy you, when they had a chance, as no doubt many were.

But there is another way of doing things.

And one of its attractions is that it is £150,000 cheaper. It's called winding your neck in.

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