The BBC reports that three Ulster Unionist councillors have walked out of a Down District Council presentation on Irish by East Belfast activist Linda Ervine. Down District covers a majority-Nationalist area, with a total of six Unionist councillors as against 14 for the SDLP and Sinn Féin.
Ironically, one of the councillors, Walter Lyons, phoned Mrs. Ervine in advance to assure her that his action was not to be construed as a slight to her — she has family links to the UVF — but rather "was intended to send a message to [the mainly SDLP] nationalist councillors". Mrs. Ervine described Mr. Lyons as an "old friend" of her husband, former PUP leader Brian Ervine.
One of the complaints advanced by Mr. Lyons concerned street signs:
"It used to be 70% of the replies had to be favour of the street signs. They changed that to the majority of the replies, so they could have 20 houses contacted and three people reply, and if two of those wanted the Irish sign on their street, it would be granted."
In a further irony, the Belfast Telegraph is carrying a story about a legal challenge by a West Belfast resident canvassed about just that issue. Belfast currently adheres to a policy similar to that which Down has since modified. Under those rules, in any survey of attitudes to bilingual street signs, two thirds of residents must be in favour for there to be a change. Not only that, but:
"According to Ms Reid's legal team [...] non-returned votes were wrongly counted as being opposed to dual signage.
They contend that the two-thirds policy does not comply with a requirement in local government legislation for the views of residents to be taken into consideration."
Scottish readers with long memories will recall the 1979 devolution referendum, in which a similar rule ensured that non-voters, some of whom were actually dead but remained on the electoral roll, were counted as having voted against constitutional change.
Section 11 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 mandates local consultation on bilingual signage, but — in a bizarre but quite possibly intentional omission — fails to lay down rules on what constitutes fair play. It seems that the courts are now going to be asked to make law on the hoof where direct-rule Ministers failed, and their decision could have wide-ranging implications not just for Belfast but for all 11 of the new councils.
Personally, the Blether Region feels that even requiring that a majority of respondents declare themselves in favour of bilingualism before it can be made a reality is a gross breach of human rights. After all, bilingualism is always about the minority, and no one is disadvantaged by the addition of another line of text.