BANBRIDGE council chairman Joan Baird has become embroiled in controversy this week over a vote on the proposed erection of Irish language signage in the district.
Mrs Baird is known to have abstained when the Sinn Fein proposal was put to the vote at a recent council committee meeting and The Leader understands party colleague Olive Mercer likewise sat out the show of hands.
The precise outcome of the vote, which would in any event have to win ratification by the full council, has not been made public, but the DUP has responded to news of Ulster Unionist abstentions with disappointment and concern.
Mrs Baird declined to comment on the vote. But council newcomer Mrs Mercer explained her decision to abstain as having been made in light of a pending draft policy on the issue and with a view to avoiding potentially scuppering any future proposals to add Ulster-Scots to the district’s signage.
A perceived lack of Unionist unity on what was described as a costly and divisive proposal was the chief concern to emerge when The Leader contacted the DUP.
A source said, “Two proposals were made to the committee; the first, from Sinn Fein, would have meant that Irish language signs could be erected if two-thirds of the local residents agreed.
“This would have been costly. It would also have been divisive.
“A second, DUP, proposal, maintained the current situation with road signs in English alone.
“It was extremely disappointing that when this was put to the vote two ‘Unionist’ councillors - Councillor Olive Mercer from Dromore and UUP Council Chair Joan Baird, failed to stand together with their fellow Unionists and abstained on this important vote.
“What is most concerning is that on an issue which is clearly of importance to the Unionist community these two UUP councillors couldn’t support their fellow Unionists but chose instead to sit on their hands.
“Had the Sinn Fein proposal been adopted it would have increased community friction and tension, wasted ratepayers’ money in an extremely difficult economic climate and would have had a significant impact on signage across the entire district, with the possibility of Irish signs erected anywhere from Loughbrickland through to Dromore, Rathfriland, Gilford or Scarva.
“This is a matter where the public would expect their local representatives to speak for them and to represent them on an issue of such magnitude. It is very disappointing that both Councillor Baird and Councillor Mercer failed to do so.” The DUP source said the party hoped that if the issue was brought before the full council both Mrs Baird and Mrs.Mercer would vote with their fellow Unionists “in a manner the Unionist electorate would expect”.
Mrs Mercer, however, insisted that the wording of the proposal allowed for the possibility that to vote against would have excluded the future addition to signs of any alternative to English, including Ulster Scots.
Therefore, she said, in the absence of sufficient research on the issue, she believed it better to await the pending production of a draft policy upon which to base an informed decision.