Tuesday, 19 February 2013

A Road to Nowhere

The Detail reports that the Northern Ireland Tourist Board refused a £200,000 grant to Down District Council until it agreed to scrap its original plans and make any signage connected with a tourism project monolingual in English. NITB Chief Executive Alan Clarke even claimed in writing that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Arlene Foster, had issued a "Ministerial Decision" prohibiting it from funding bilingual projects.

Under the Good Friday Agreement and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the institutiuons of UK Government — clearly including the Northern Ireland Executive, which is the most relevant — are committed to promoting the Irish language. Former Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure Nelson McCausland tested this when he cut funding to the Northern Ireland Place-Name Project, which resulted in the closure of an academic initiative whose research work, ironically, probably found greater approval among Protestants than many other Irish-language projects one could mention. Ultimately, however, even during Mr. McCausland's tenure, DCAL was still spending money on Irish (albeit no that muckle), and its decision to withdraw funds could be seen as being within his legitimate purview as Minister.

Actually attaching blanket anti-Irish stipulations to grant conditions is another matter, however, differing fundamentally from not having a policy or having a bad one. Not only that, at a local government level, applications for funding to cover English-Irish signage are much more likely to originate from districts with majorities of Catholics and Nationalists, groups protected under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. If there were evidence that such councils were losing out in the funding stakes because of grá na Gaeilge, or incurring re-design costs as a result of the ban, the NITB would have to be on very firm ground with its reasoning.

Unfortunately for it, that seems unlikely, as it appears to be arguing that "bilingual signs could present a road safety hazard".
"NITB works closely with local councils to contribute part funding to tourist signage. NITB is entirely focused on the experience of the visitor to Northern Ireland, and therefore keen to ensure that all tourist interpretation and signage is clear, does not confuse our visitors and assists them in understanding the importance of the destination. The approach adopted by NITB, and which is already in place for white and brown road traffic signs, is consistent with Roads Service policy i.e. all signs should be in English except where an attraction is already known in Irish."
There is already a wealth of data confirming that bilingual road signage is not dangerous, most recently from Scotland, where only last year a report found that "while there is evidence that bilingual signs may have increased the demand of the driving task, this increase can be absorbed and managed by the driver and therefore does not result in a significant increase in crash risk and accident involvement". It concluded that "Analysis of accident data in Scotland concurred with this conclusion, finding no evidence that accidents increased or decreased as a result of the installation of bilingual signs." The same is of course the long-term experience of the Irish Republic, where many tourists to Northern Ireland in any case originate.

Moreover, the sentence "all signs should be in English except where an attraction is already known in Irish" seems distinctly ill-informed. The names of most attractions, after all, will involve place-names, and most of those originate in Irish. And even where the English form is not simply inexpertly transliterated Gaelic, there is nearly always a Gaelic alternative.

Meanwhile, artist Stephen Hall relates that the National Trust is refusing to stock his multi-lingual Giant's Causeway DVD — which includes not only an 18-minute English-Irish animation but a version in Scottish Gaelic and two separate Scots translations — in its new centre at the Causeway. The Trust, which recently came under fire for its inclusion at the same venue of creationist "lines to take" ("there is a debate", etc.), said at the time that it had no room for the DVD in its shop. That may of course be absolutely true. However, given the extreme relevance of the product to the site, it certainly does not have the ring of truth about it.

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