It must be nice to live in a place where the “Welcome” signs are not controversial.
The main story in today’s Irish News, the Belfast morning newspaper read by the North of Ireland’s nationalist/republican/Catholic community has been about the erection and instant (unofficial) demolition of “Welcome To Northern Ireland” road signs on the border between the Republic of Ireland and “Northern Ireland” (which is officially part of the United Kingdom).
The problem is that the two communities here think about the place in which we live…in radically different ways. I tend to use the phrase “Norn Iron” which is how “Northern Ireland” tends to be pronounced in Belfast. It can be an ironic or dismissive phrase……which I use with light-hearted contempt for the notion that there is something permenant about “Northern Ireland”. I would not want to give the place I live any form of legitimacy by doing it the simple courtesy of getting its name right. Of course….depending on my audience I can be even more offensive. The “North OF Ireland” or “NORTH EAST Ireland” are geographically correct but cant be used in polite company because it would give away the fact that I am a nationalist. “Norn Iron” has a certain ironic ambiguity……..am I mocking “Northern Ireland” itself? Or am I mocking and exaggerating my own Belfast accent?
In my part of the world we thrive on ambiguity.
Politicians in our divided society tend to talk about “…..in this part of the United Kingdom” or “….in this part of Ireland” not just as a sentiment expressing their own belief but as a means of emphasising this to the other community.
So the decision to erect twelve signs saying “Welcome to Northern Ireland” on the twelve busiest roads into Norn Iron is controversial. The Government decision……and our Government is a power-sharing arrangement between unionists and nationalists…….was taken by the Minister for Regional Devlopment…….. who is a Unionist (UUP) man Danny Kennedy. It would be in his interest to play up the seperation from the Republic. Border towns have not had signs saying “Welcome to Northern Ireland”, largely because the demographic mix in border towns is nationalist.
And as I said we thrive on the ambiguity……..never do anything offensive. When we drive thru Newry, County Down over the border into the Republic of Ireland, the Republics signage says “Welcome to County Louth” (ie just another Irish county),. The signposts are in Irish and English and the mileage in kilometres. In the north signage is in English only and in miles. Thus theres no need to literally “spell it out”.
The official line is that these new signs are to aid tourists. Hmmm. The way things work in Norn Iron is that if you can do something useful in Norn Iron and still manage to offend “themmuns” (the other community)….well thats a good days work. Danny Kennedy’s signs “help” tourists (as if they didnt know where they are anyway) and “offend” local residents. indeed…………welcome to Norn Iron. This is how we do business.
But borders are always a bit tricky………Take the border between United States and Mexico….. about which I know almost nothing. Or the border between Germany and Poland of which I know less.
I dont know if “Welcome to the United States” is controversial at Laredo but that border was a result of a “settlement” after a war. Likewise the German-Polish border is “settled”. I make no comment as to the justice.
But there is something not quite “settled” about the Irish border. And something not quite “settled” about the Conflict (as it seems to be known now) within Norn Iron. We have agreed to a process which effectively puts everything on hold……which is of course better than blowing people up and shooting people. The problem arises when people (in this case Danny Kennedy) try to go a step beyond the process which was actually known as “Creative Ambiguity”. Our Peace is built on this ……….Creative Ambiguity.
Travelling from County Monaghan (in the Republic) to “County Armagh”(North) is ambiguous. Travelling from County Donegal (Republic) to “County Tyrone” (North) is ambiguous. Travelling from County Monaghan to “Northern Ireland” or from County Donegal to “Northern Ireland” removes the ambiguity.
Unionists have already denounced the removal of “Welcome to Northern Ireland” signs as nationalist vandalism and insisted they will be replaced.
The signs should really read “This is Northern Ireland ………and youre welcome to it”.