Northern Ireland

Sinn Féin and SDLP clash over font for dual language street signs

An Irish language street sign in Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell.
An Irish language street sign in Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell.

Sinn Féin and the SDLP have clashed over which font should be used for Irish in Belfast's dual language street signs.

The row began after an SDLP proposal at a Belfast City Council meeting to explore the use of the cló Gaelach - a historic Gaelic typeface - for Irish language street names, as well as a new bespoke font of “Belfast character” for the English version.

A proposal submitted by SDLP Councillor Gary McKeown at the council’s People and Communities Committee meeting this week requested the council “explore the use of cló Gaelach, or an appropriate adaptation, for Irish language wording on bilingual street signs in Belfast, bearing in mind that accessibility assessment if required should be judged against the standards for this script format rather than Roman script.”

The proposal also suggests the council explores “the possibilities to use a distinctive font for English language wording on all street signs to create a unique “Belfast character” which will be readily identifiable as a feature of the city.”

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It states: “This could echo, for example, fonts used on traditional black tiled signs, meeting accessibility requirements.”

The proposal also suggests exploring “options around other scripts that may be required for bilingual signage in future, relating to other languages, to avoid any delays in delivering any such signage.”

Councillor McKeown told the committee: “What I am trying to do here is take the opportunity during a significant rollout number of bilingual signs over the next while, to explore opportunities to ensure those signs are not just carrying two languages, but that they also reflect the culture and unique aesthetic this city has had around its built heritage and signs, but which has been somewhat lost.

“People cherish and feel very strongly about the old black signs, so it is about building upon that fondness around the heritage of the city.”

Sinn Féin councillor Róis-Máire Donnelly said: “We wouldn’t be supportive of this. As a gaeilgeoir myself, it is not a font that young people in schools would be aware of.

“For us, the introduction of street signage in dual language would be to make the (Irish) language more accessible and visible for people growing up in the parish. I don’t know how beneficial it would be for gaeilgeoirs in the city.” 

Sinn Féin Councillor Tómas O’Néill said: “Let’s keep it plain.”

Mr McKeown said: “This is not setting anything in stone, and I appreciate the comments by the members – I don’t necessarily disagree with them – and that is why I think it is important to look at options that go around it.

“If we look at Dublin, which moved away from cló Gaelach – it is now seeing a rehabilitation and restoration of signs in Dublin which carry a form of this font. We need to look at options which are unique to this city.”

SDLP Councillor Séamas de Faoite said: “The intention in the motion is to reflect the fact that street signage can become an iconic part of the visual representation of a city. We have already seen that in terms of the love that is there for Belfast’s traditional black porcelain street signs, which unfortunately and all too often we have seen either being damaged or on some occasions out for sale on ebay.

“So there is scope here for developing the visual iconography of Belfast. We have seen it in other places where iconic street signage becomes part of the marketable image of a city, whether that is in Dublin or in London or in other places. I see no reason why it shouldn’t be the same in Belfast. And this covers the Irish language.”

Sinn Féin Councillor Micheal Donnelly said: “There has already been a dual language street sign policy agreed, signs are being rolled out across the city. If we were to agree with this, is that a case of more cost implications for taking them all down and doing them again in this new style?

“The new system is effective. We don’t need to change the system.”

A proposal by Mr de Faoite, for the council to bring back a paper looking at options surrounding the issues in Councillor McKeown’s motion, was successfully passed.