Some south Down unionists feel that Irish language signs are being imposed on them against their will - and fear it could be a taste of things to come under an Irish language act. PHILIP BRADFIELD reports
The rising tide of vandalism of against Irish language signs erected by Newry Mourne and Down and District Council (NMDDC) in south Down has not gone unnoticed by one young mother in the picturesque village of Killinchy.
A total of 25 such signs have been defaced and replaced by the council in mainly unionist areas since last year.
Walking her child home from school last week, the softly spoken woman stopped to muse on the dynamics of the ongoing battle between the council and local vandals.
A unionist in her mid-thirties, she regularly walks past one local sign that has been destroyed and replaced five times in the past year, most recently in the past week.
The Irish on the large sign does not bother her in the least, but she is astute enough to see the intense battle going on under her nose.
And for her, she observes that neither side appears willing to give in, not least the council which keeps replacing the signs.
“I thought it was a bit strange,” she said. “Every time the sign is vandalised they put it back up again, it’s like they are pushing the issue. They are getting scribbled over or painted on each time.”
Asked if the signs bother her, she replied: “The main problem must be wasting the ratepayers’ money, if they keep doing it.”
Killinchy and Rathfriland are two hot-spots for high levels of vandalism of Irish language signs. The issue is provoking a small minority enough to engage in continued criminal destruction.
Rathfriland UUP councillor Glenn Barr says his phone rang off the hook with concerned voters when the signs first went up.
Of the random sample of people approached by the News Letter in both areas last week there was a broad spectrum of opinion.
While no-one who spoke to the News Letter wanted to be identified, a Killinchy native in her 40s, from a mixed marriage, had no issue with the signs.
“I am not aware of any vandalism and I have lived in the area for 40 years,” she said. “I have no issues with bilingual signs at all.”
A local unionist man, aged 50, was slightly bemused by the tensions on both sides.
“The vandalism of the council signs is a bit silly,” he said. “But I would not want to see the street signs changed into Irish.
“I have never had anyone speak to me in Gaelic around here. I know people in Donegal who speak Irish but they can’t see the point of an Irish language act - because nobody speaks it here [in Northern Ireland].”
Another Killinchy, man, a unionist aged 50, said the signs “don’t bother him in the slightest”.
He added: “But I really don’t like the number of [Union] flags going up here in May and June. The people who put them up are not from Killinchy at all but from Ballygowan and Crossgar.”
Rowallane NMDDC DUP councillor William Walker said many signs have been repeatedly destroyed in the area - and in Ballynahinch.
“When it first came up at the council that these signs were going to be erected, the eight unionist councillors - out of 41 - warned that it would not go down well in unionist areas.”
Other vandalism has taken place in Saintfield, Ballynahinch, Killyleagh and Ballyward.
“But we were basically told to be quiet and two of us were reported to the council ombudsman for sectarianism and bigotry. He came back and said we had no case to answer,” said Mr Walker. “Unionists are concerned that this could be a taste of what an Irish language act might be like for the rest of Northern Ireland.
“In 2016-17 the council spent £112k on promoting the Irish language - but not a penny for Ulster Scots or Orange culture.”
The News Letter encountered more obvious antipathy in Rathfriland.
A unionist mother-of-three in her fifties, said: “It is a waste of council money, because they do not even use it [Irish] in the south of Ireland.”
Her friend added: “I don’t mind them [the signs], but I don’t see the point in them either. I have done without Irish for 50 years, why do I need it now? When I am in Donegal I never hear people in shops using it.”
An 83-year-old unionist local said: “I just want a wee smoke and a wee drink and a wee bit of peace. Apart from that I really don’t care.”
None of his six friends, mostly retired, dissented.
Another unionist pair had contrasting views. One was quite passionate. “Let the signs be,” said the retiree. “We don’t need Irish on them.”
However his friend had lived in Canada and seen bilingual signs there: “You have to be broad minded. Narrow mindedness is killing people.”
An English Catholic woman in her 40s agreed. “I don’t see what harm it does. Unionist flags don’t do anybody any harm so I don’t know what harm it does. It is just narrow mindedness.
Another local Catholic woman in her 40s had a similar take. “There is good and bad in every community. People out there probably do want to see peace. The vandalism should not be happening.”
The council declined to respond to unionist comment.
A spokesman said it has managed 25 vandalism incidents to its boundary signage since it was erected during 2016.
The council recorded seven vandalism incidents during 2016 and 18 vandalism incidents for 2017 to date.
“A report detailing the incidents has not been considered by committee or full council,” a spokesman said.
The council said the following account for all 25 attacks on signage along the council boundary;-
4 - A25 Newry Road Rathfriland to Newry
3 - A25 Castlewellan Road, Rathfriland to Castlewellan
5 - A22 Killyleagh Road, Balloo / Killinchy to Killyleagh
4 - A50 Ballyward Road, Banbridge to Ballyward
3 - A49 Magheraknock Road, Lisburn to Ballynahinch
2 - A24 Carryduff Road, Carryduff to Ballynahinch
1 - A21 Saintfield Road, Ballygowan to Saintfield
1 - A1 Belfast road – Belfast to Newry
1 - Church Hill, Flurry Bridge, Jonesborough
1 - Blaney Road, ROI to Crossmaglen
In March the council told the News Letter that “any acts of vandalism will be reported to the PSNI and the signs will be replaced”.
It added: “Given the frequency and ongoing nature of this vandalism, the Council will review its position with respect to vandalised boundary signs and would also hope the PSNI might be able to take action to apprehend the perpetrators.”