Street/Sráid: What the Battle for Dual-Language Street Signs in Belfast Means for Brexit
On February 6th, the Belfast City Council approved dual-language street signs for eight streets in West Belfast. The street signs will now feature the Irish-language street name underneath the English one, and will be among the over fifty streets that have switched to dual-language signs in the past year. Since the 1990s, when legislation was introduced that allows street signs to be made dual-language if two-thirds of the residents on the electoral register of the street agree, there have only been 200 street sign changes in Belfast. This year’s fifty new dual-language signs represent a locally-driven push for the Irish language in a region contentiously fighting over the place of the Irish language on street signs, in national politics, and in Northern Irish culture.
As Brexit looms closer by the day, the eyes of the world are back on Northern Ireland. One of the biggest unanswered questions of the various Brexit plans is the question of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The border has been demilitarized since the 1998 signing of the Good Friday Accords, which ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. An open border was a key part of that peace deal. And with that open border in greater danger by the day, preexisting sectarian and cultural tensions are rising.
The looming fear of a hard border in a No-Deal Brexit reflects the larger uncertainty surrounding the future relationship of Northern Ireland with Britain and the Republic in a post-Brexit world. Each side of the Northern Irish government is attempting to use Brexit to their advantage: Sinn Féin party members, arguing that Northern Ireland decisively voted to remain in the EU, are calling for a new referendum on Northern Ireland’s UK membership in hopes of a united Ireland. Meanwhile, Democratic Unionist Party (“DUP”) lawmakers, who by allying with Prime Minister Theresa May have given her a majority in Parliament, are using their disproportionate power in Westminster to prevent any Brexit deal that would hint at a separation between Northern Ireland and the UK (i.e. any agreement that includes a backstop).
It is in this heavily politicized landscape that Irish language activists have spent the past few years fighting for an Irish Language Act, or Achta Gaeilge, that would enshrine Irish language rights in Northern Ireland. Irish language supporters, 15,000 of whom marched on central Belfast in May of 2017, and their allies in the Sinn Féin political party seek a deal that would allow, among other demands, the use of Irish in the courts, the assembly, and other government bodies, the appointment of an Irish language commissioner, and the right for education in Irish.
An Irish language act would immediately reverberate around the region, not in the words on people’s tongues, but also on the roads they drive on. The act calls for bilingual signage on all public buildings and roads. Street signs would be the first, quickest change, and would face the most immediate rejection.
Historically, any example of Irish in signs or street signs has led to political fighting. In March of 2016, manhole covers in the town of Ballymena were inscribed with both “water” and “uisce” (the Irish word for water). The Deputy Mayor, a Unionist, immediately called for them to be replaced, saying, “Constituents have contacted me to raise questions over the use of Irish water hydrant covers on the ratepayer-funded public realm project in Ballymena town centre.”
For Unionists, the presence of a single Irish word is a threat. The Unionists reject the entire concept of the Irish Language Act, which they view as a Sinn Féin play pushing for a united Ireland. As the Unionists see it, it is an attempt to prioritize a minority over the majority, and it is an explicit cultural threat. In a widely derided 2017 speech, DUP party leader Arlene Foster insisted that the party would never agree to an Irish Language Act, saying, “If you feed a crocodile, it will keep coming back for more.”
Foster apologized for the statement, but it revealed a larger, existential fear surrounding the use of the Irish language. Any significant recognition of the Irish language is considered an erosion of British identity and a step closer to separating from Britain. It is such a significant threat that the fighting over the Irish Language Act has contributed to the collapse of the power-sharing agreement. Northern Ireland has been without a sitting government for the past two years; in fact, the region now holds the world record for the longest period without a sitting government.
In January of 2018, talks to reopen the government reconvened, but fell through in February after a draft deal appeared which was rumored to have included provisions for an Irish Language Act. In a recent article in the Independent, the journalist Ben Kelly explained, “The Irish Language Act has become the most prominent discussion point, not just for Sinn Féin, but among mainstream media and broadcasters, and across Northern Ireland in general [...] any deal would have to include it in some shape or form.”
A variety of scandals and controversies led to the collapse of power-sharing that closed the government; the possibility of an Irish Language Act has kept it closed.
The recent campaign for the Irish Language Act is largely run by Conradh na Gaeilge, previously named the Gaelic League, an organization that advocates for the Irish language in Ireland and across the world. Founded in the 1890s, the group was part of a spate of organizations dedicated to developing Irish culture, Irish sports, and creating a sense of “Irishness.” This creation of an Irish identity was an inherently political act.
In keeping with global colonizing practices, the British had established a system of English-language schools and organizations for the specific goal of anglicizing Ireland by the mid-1800s. Patrick Pearse, the Irish revolutionary leader, called the schools and the systemic Anglicization they were a part of “the murder machine.” The founder of the Irish-language Gaelic League, Douglas Hyde, said, “in Anglicising ourselves wholesale we have thrown away with a light heart the best claim which we have upon the world’s recognition of us as a separate nationality.”
It is this organization, an organization intimately linked to the 1916 Revolution that eventually created a free Ireland, that is one of the largest supporters of the campaign for the Irish Language Act. Historically, Irish language and Irish revolutionary identity were intimately related. Little surprise, then, that the Northern Irish Unionists feel threatened.
“Who you are depends on where you are,” the Marxist sociologist Henri Lefebvre wrote in a call to understand space, particularly urban space, not as a place in which things happen but as a conceptual location in which identity is defined. Lefebvre invented the concept of ‘The Right to the City,’ a theory that frames the city as a contested space. According to Lefebvre, the city is defined by the constant conflict between constituent groups over who controls the city, its space, and its identity.
In his article The Latin American City as Contested Space, Gareth Jones explains, “Symbolic oppositions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are central to the construction of an identity within the representation of space.” Within any constrained space, there is jostling as different groups and members attempt to define and assert their identities in the public space. In this struggle, place names and street signs become a battlefield. Citing Banck’s Signifying Urban Space (1986), Jones continues, “Place is created by the names afforded to it, which reflect the symbolic importance of the contest for the space to be secured.” Indeed, “examples include the rewriting of street names to embrace a changing notion of national or regional identity.”
Street signs are among the most external signifiers of identity. They are simultaneously intensely local and standard across borders. The Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals standardized signing for road traffic internationally, ensuring that the iconography of street signs and road markings are largely the same across international borders. A resident of Northern Ireland driving over the soft border into the Republic of Ireland would have no trouble understanding or navigating the streets--they would easily understand the street signs.
But while the street sign serves a clear, universally understood function of directing road traffic and providing a place name, it also presents an identity. The second largest city in Ireland is either Derry or Londonderry, depending on your unionist or nationalist leanings, and the conflict over the name has led to its common presentation on maps and some signs as Londonderry/Derry (Derry-Stroke-Londonderry). The stroke in the middle gave birth to the nickname Stroke City—a nickname which uses the literal divider between two names as a signifier for the city.
This doubled identity would be made national if the Irish language place name was placed on signs with the English language name. Most of the English language names are meaningless, anglicized versions of descriptive Irish place names. Belfast, for example, is Béal Feirste in Irish. Beal means mouth and Feirste means inlet, referring to the mouth of the River Lagan where Belfast sits. The Irish language name often adds another layer of meaning to the city’s identity, directly connecting the place to ancient Irish myth or emphasizing a specific characteristic of the landscape. To put the Irish name on a street sign is to add a new focus to the public identity of the space.
The Anglicization of place names across the island of Ireland was an act of colonization. That it occurred five hundred years ago does not change the cultural violence inherent in renaming and relabeling a place. The bitter, government-collapsing battle over the place of the Irish language in Northern Ireland underscores the place of street sign iconography as a primary battleground of decolonization. At stake in the signage of Northern Ireland is not merely street names, but the identity of a contested region.
Place names that were once in Irish can and should be presented on signs in both English and Irish. The Northern Irish government should enact the Irish Language Act, enshrining both identities on the tongues and the street signs of Northern Ireland.
But in a region divided, the process of decolonization occurs not nationally, but locally, as individual neighbors decide to double the names of their roads. Across Northern Ireland, if the government remains inactive, dual language street signs will continue to slowly advance neighborhood by neighborhood and street by sráid.