Traffic signs, Ulster Scots, and riots…

How on earth do you link traffic signs, riots, and Ulster Scots? In this piece, I argue it will take a fundamentally different attitude to Northern Ireland identity if we are to stop the near annual violence which undoes so much good work in promoting investment, tourism and regeneration – via a look at traffic signs and Ulster-Scots strategies.

Thanks to Ulster Folk – the quarterly newspaper available now across Northern Ireland and County Donegal – for publishing this.
Traffic Signs

So, what is this about traffic signs? The first thing a foreign driver most likely notices arriving at Dover is the traffic signs – or, specifically, the distances on them, marked in miles rather than kilometres. The United Kingdom is one of only two countries remaining in the world which uses miles on its traffic signs (the other, of course, is the United States). Why is this?

It is not because miles are more practical than kilometres – there is nothing more practical about a unit of 1760 yards over a unit of 1000 metres!

It is not because the change is too complex – if vast countries such as Canada or our neighbours in Ireland can manage it, there is no reason we cannot.

It is in fact a matter of identity. It is a subtle way, one of many, in which the British define themselves as distinct. In broad terms, tradition is an exceptionally British value – whether it be maintenance of miles over kilometres, maintenance of apparently funny titles like “Lord Kilclooney” (don’t ever bet on wholesale Lords Reform), or maintenance of strange royal pageants (and forget about a British Republic!). No one can justify these logically or pragmatically – but they will continue to exist because they are all ways of connecting the British to their past and making us unique.

All nations have these quirks, of course. Spain has the vast, mysterious (and, to an outsider, somewhat loopy) rituals of the “Semana Santa” before Easter; German taxis must be a very specific cream colour (but do not ask anyone why); and so on.

Most obviously, returning to traffic signs, entering the Republic of Ireland, we move to kilometres but we also add the Irish (Gaelic) language. Again, this is not for any practical purpose – almost the entire population now speaks English in preference to Irish Gaelic, and thus Irish Gaelic is generally omitted from roadworks signs or temporary notices (as well as private advertisements, even in the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht area). Irish Gaelic is not added for any real practical purpose; it is, rather, a display of identity – again, a connection with Ireland’s Gaelic past (hence my use of the term “Irish Gaelic”) which provides for a unique sense of history and identity. This is not just a matter for traffic signs of course – match programmes for GAA games, for example, generally contain the names of the two teams on the cover in Irish Gaelic, with everything else in English, making the same essential symbolic point of identity. To others, it all seems daft – but then, to others, so do royal pageants, strange titles and distances in miles.

Ulster Scots

Objections to the campaign by some to add Irish to traffic signs in Northern Ireland take two forms: first, the practical objection that there is simply no point (and/or that they would merely be scrubbed out anyway in some locations, thus becoming further “markers” of the sectarian divide); and second, that if you are to have Irish you must also have Ulster Scots. I suspect most readers will have some sympathy with the first, but will find the second somewhat ludicrous. Why is this?

It is important to answer this question because, in response to Irish-language street name signs appearing in some parts of Northern Ireland, some people are beginning to suggest Ulster-Scots signs (something which has, of course, already been tried with unforeseen but frankly embarrassing consequences). There are two essential points here.

Firstly, Ulster Scots simply does not contain the same essentially symbolic power that Irish Gaelic does. Its appearance would not warm the hearts of the “Ulster-Scots nation” (nothing if not a pretty practical lot, however defined) the same way Irish Gaelic does for the “Irish Gaelic nation”. It does not carry any weight in identifying with an “Lowlands Germanic” past.

Secondly, “Ulster Scots” is being abused here as a substitute for “Unionist” or “Loyalist”, to get even with “Republican” areas which sometimes go for Irish-language signage. Yet in fact street names in Belfast are already heavily biased towards the Unionist world view. “Chichester Street”, “Kitchener Street”, “Victoria Street” are all obviously linked to people from Great Britain; “Sandyknowes”, “Kilconway” and “The Brae” are examples of directly Ulster-Scots names (either of geographic entities or people) – demonstrating the nonsense inherent in the proposal, because such names would require translation into English, not Ulster Scots! What are we to do with Anglo-Norman names such as “Whiteabbey”, Viking names such as “Strangford”, or Highlands Scottish names such as “Islandmagee”? Then there are names directly for places in Great Britain, or peers from them – for example “Oxford Street”, “York Gate” and “Carlisle Circus”.


“Carlisle Circus” was, of course, the focal point for this year’s riots. Last year it was Cluan Place; in 2005 it was Whiterock; and so on. Every year they happen, every year they get associated in some vague way at least with the Parades Commission, every year the rest of Northern Ireland asks questions about what this is doing for jobs, tourism and investment. Then the next year, the same thing happens again. It should have struck us by now that something is fundamentally wrong.

It is this: inherent within the 1998 settlement is the notion that we are to be bundled into one of two “communities”. This is not a la carte; it is a single set menu: we can have “Irish, Gaelic, Catholic, Green, Celtic, Nationalist/Republican”, or we can have “British, Ulster-Scots, Protestant, Orange, Rangers, Unionist/Loyalist”. What the “State” then attempts to do is balance everything up so that both “communities” feel fairly treated – yet, inevitably, this fails.

It fails for two prime reasons. The first – that not everyone fits neatly into either of those “communities” – is well rehearsed. The second – that even insofar as people do fit into those “communities”, the varying parts of them are not mirror images – is less well rehearsed but crucial to any solution to annual outbreaks of violence. Just as the simple truth is that the Irish Gaelic language is more important (or, at least, has a higher symbolic value) to your average Nationalist than Ulster Scots is to your average Unionist, it is also true that parading is more important to your average Unionist than it is to your average Nationalist; this is noting also the above point that language is irrelevant to many (if not most) Nationalists and parading is irrelevant to many (if not most) Unionists. Thus apparently straightforward and, to a great many people, highly appealing solutions – such as “stop all funding of minority languages” or “ban all parading” can be presented as fair and pragmatic, but are inherently heavily biased under the terms of the “two community” model we have decided to run with.

In other words, we are trying to maintain a balance but, because of the differing nature not only of our identities but also how we exhibit them (remember our traffic signs above), the balance is bound to fail. The result – inevitable if not justifiable – is civil disobedience by whichever “community” reckons it is getting a raw deal.


Traffic signs are a strange way to illustrate it, but the “two community” model can never be more than a safety valve. In countries as diverse as Lebanon and Belgium, it has already comprehensively failed in the long run. If we are serious about moving on – towards a permanent and proper peace unbroken by regular riots – one of the things we will have to do is move away from the “set menu” and towards a society in which the State’s role is to ensure everyone has the individual freedom to choose who they wish to be, and the individual responsibility to respect others’ choices in that regard.


3 thoughts on “Traffic signs, Ulster Scots, and riots…

  1. Martin Smyth says:

    Ian I am currently doing a little personal ‘research’ on the Ulster-Scots dialect/accent/language.
    Just wanted to ask, I have viewed various maps of the ‘core’ ulster scots speaking areas, the 3 main being apparently the Laggan area of East Donegal, much of Mid and North Antrim, as well as parts of Ards and it’s Penninsula. Regarding the later, is it really an Ulster Scots area?
    I have to say, if you listen carefully to natives of Ballymena, Larne, Coleraine, Ballymoney ect, you will be quite easily able to note the similar features of speech between these people ie they are definitely speaking versions of Ulster Scots.
    However, where are these features in the supposedly Ulster Scot area of North Down I have referred to? Have you ever heard someone from Newtownards for example? If thats an Ulster Scots accent then anything is! To me it seems like a Belfast-esque accent if anything, certainly not an Ulster Scot tongue.

    • Hi Martin,

      My own instinct has long been that Broad Ulster Scots has died out in County Down in the last generation. As you suggest, Newtownards seems a linguistic and cultural extension of East Belfast these days.

      Interestingly, census figures back up this contention. Although knowledge of Ulster Scots is higher in Ards than any other district of County Down, it is markedly lower (in fact, not even half) the “core” areas of North Antrim.

      Take a look at those figures and see what you think!

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