Another nerdy one…
Over a century ago the UK (then consisting of the whole of Great Britain and Ireland) introduced vehicle registration plates. They contained one or two letters to mark the city or county of registration, and a number of up to four digits. In England and Wales, the letter(s) were allocated in order according to the size of the city or county – London was A, Lancashire was B and so on, through to Rutland. However, the letters S and G were reserved for Scotland; and I and Z for Ireland. In Ireland, plates were allocated in alphabetical order by county first and then city (IA Antrim, IB Armagh, IC Carlow and so on through to VI Waterford and so on). When they ran out, each city or county simply chose a new combination; when these ran out, plates were reversed (i.e. UI 9999 was followed by 1 UI); subsequently, when that ran out, an initial letter was added (thus AUI 1).
Northern Ireland is the only part of the British Isles which has retained the original system – now three letters (the initial serial letter plus the two-letter county/city code which usually ends in -Z) and four digits. The Republic of Ireland had a similar system until 1987 (though with only three digits and a code usually starting Z-); Great Britain had a similar system but with three digits and an additional letter to mark the year of registration (subsequently half-year) until 2001.
The Republic of Ireland changed to a more “European” style system, with two digits (subsequently three) to mark the year (subsequently half-year), a one or two-letter code to mark city or county, and then a serial number of up to six numbers. Great Britain changed to a two-letter code for the “Registration Office” (county or collection of counties), two digits to mark the half-year, and then three serial letters.
Northern Ireland had retained a distinct system largely because it retained a distinct office – with vehicles registered in Coleraine as opposed to Swansea for the rest of the UK. However, the Coleraine functions have now transferred to Swansea; additionally, the current system is about to run out – the nominally “Derry City” plates have now reached “VUI” with no natural next code. It would be possible to get around this, either by introducing a code previously unused (the way “Fermanagh” used “-IG“), or by reversing (i.e. starting again with “1001 AUI” – the four digits are now always used); but is it worth it, given vehicle registration is now pan-UK anyway?
It may be time, therefore, for Northern Ireland simply to come into line with the rest of the UK – the initial letter I- has even been reserved for this (as per the plate above).
Conceivably Northern Ireland’s registration offices could still be left intact (Ballymena for Co Antrim IA-IC; Downpatrick for Co Down ID-IE; Enniskillen for Co Fermanagh IF; Derry City IG-IH; Coleraine itself IJ-IK; Armagh IP-IR; Omagh for Co Tyrone IS-IT; and Belfast IU-IZ with space potentially for Lisburn IL and Newry IN). Thus, a vehicle registered in Enniskillen in March 2015 would be something like IE15 XYZ.
For all the obvious administrative advantages, the main advantage of this is that Northern Ireland’s plates would come into line with both Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland in indicating clearly the half-year of manufacture – which also helps with memorising plates.
It’s all about the big issues, eh?!