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Garvaghy area ‘ethnically cleansed’ as street sign debate heats up council chamber

Portadown residents’ hopes of erecting a dual-language street sign have been delayed after a split among planning committee members on Monday night.

In October 2023, an application for the street sign at Woodside Gardens, off the Garvaghy Road, was lodged with ABC Council.

The council had previously adopted a policy to deal with such naming requests, a process that required two stages, the first being a petition by residents.

For the petition to be accepted by the council, it must be representative of “not less than one-third of all occupiers of premises in the street for which the application is made.”

In this case, all nine of the respondents were in favour.

Similarly, with stage 2, the council canvassed, by post, all occupiers of premises on the relevant street to seek their views on the application, and the required threshold was met.

However, there were a series of objections from others.

Upper Bann MP Carla Lockhart, speaking at Tuesday night’s planning committee, said she was representing organisations and groups, “all of whom are utterly opposed to this application.”

“I’d start by setting the scene,” she said, as her five minutes to speak on the matter began.

“The area in question has been a mixed area since the 1970s. For many years, communities lived in peace and harmony side by side, and sadly, from 1972, after the very brutal murder of Paul Beattie, at the age of 19 by IRA terrorists, there was an increase in political tension, and as a result, this area was a heavily contested space.

“Sadly, this resulted in many Protestant families and individuals having to move away because of sectarian hate-filled abuse.

“Some would say, and I would agree, that there’s been a concerted effort to cleanse this area of Protestantism and those who would ascribe to the Protestant faith.

“A small number of the Protestant community remain in this area, living and going about their business. They do this because of their deep roots and their love for the area, their love for their neighbours, and their desire to ensure that this area is restored to a true, shared space.

“Indeed, we only have to think of the People’s Park on the edge of Woodside Gardens, around 60-odd metres from where the proposed signs would be placed. It flies in the face of the Council and the Peace Plus Programme where we’ve spent millions of pounds, mainly in this area, trying to make it a so-called shared space.

“This will utterly undermine and undo the good work which has been undertaken and the progress that has been made in this regard.

“I also want the committee to note that there is a publicly owned community facility in Woodside. Such signs would intimidate and create a no-go area for the small number of Protestants who live in this area.

“Furthermore, if these signs were attacked, I have no doubt it would be the minority community who would get the blame.

“This is political. This is an agenda, and unfortunately, it will destabilise and upset the finely balanced good relations in the area.

“This is not about the Irish language and their love for the Irish language. This is political. It’s to whip up tension, and it’s an attempt to territory mark.

“I would also say that this is a waste of ratepayers’ money when we see families struggling with the cost of living.”

Linda O’Neill, a Youth and Community Health worker within the Drumcree Community Trust for the past 25 years, argued that the community centre is used by a wide range of community groups.

Addressing the dual-language signage, she said: “The application for dual signage in Woodside Gardens was made on 30th October 2023, with all the residents on the electoral register in favour.

“So, understandably, residents feel aggrieved that this process has been going on for so long, and they do not understand why.

“As one resident stated to me, it seems that the council is doing everything they can to block the motion and are ignoring the wishes of the people who actually live here.

“I would like to highlight the fact that we have a vibrant, thriving, growing local Irish community in Portadown.

“As a parent of two children who are part of the community and who have enjoyed the right of receiving their formal education through the medium of their native language, it will be a positive and inclusive step forward for my children and others who also receive their education through the medium of Irish to see dual-language signage in their own community – in their own community!

“Dual-language signage harms no one and benefits us all as both traditions are represented. Visible representation of the Irish language community, by council and other public bodies, is long overdue.

“The democratic rights of Woodside residents, who the council should bear in mind are also ratepayers, should be acknowledged. Their wishes on this issue should not be ignored any longer. They were surveyed on this matter, and they spoke unanimously. It’s time for the council as a public body to recognise, acknowledge, and implement the residents’ wishes.

“Tír gan teanga is tír gan anam. A land without language is a land without soul.”

The application was debated vigorously for two hours.

Ms Lockhart argued that the Protestant community “have felt ostracised” and “they have felt that the area has been ethnically cleansed.”

“Certainly you look at the area and the number of people that had to leave it, had to vacate it, for fear of their lives.

“I think it’s important that we recognise that currently, there are good relations. There are working together.”

She added: “I respect the Irish language. I respect those who want to speak the Irish language, but what I don’t respect is it being used as a political football.

“And those who have contacted me feel very much that this is a long-term game in this area, and to make those who are living in this community, who have a different faith, feel uncomfortable, and they will feel uncomfortable.

“Therefore, I’m asking the council to take cognisance of their views as well as the small number of people who want the sign to go up.”

Ms O’Neill retorted: “I’m sitting here, and I have to say I’m devastated by the divisive way the Irish language is being talked about, devastated.

“There is no marking of territory. The area is my home. I am really passionate about my home and let’s be clear about something, I work with over 250 young people…30% of them, their first language is Irish.

“The generations to come after us, for a true shared space, need a recognition and an acknowledgement of the native tongue. I, unfortunately, don’t speak the native tongue, but I am so proud and my children are so immersed in the language, and what I can tell you about the language is it is most definitely not political.

“People who see it that way have their issues, but I can tell you now, as a community youth worker who works with all aspects of the community, there is nothing to fear about signs going up. If anything, it would prove that this council is being progressive, that this council is recognising the rights of the people that live there.

“I am touching 50, and I have lived in this community my whole life, and I can assure you, the days of us having to mark our territory are well and truly over. You come into my community, you will not see it draped in any colours. You will not see it painted from one end to the other.

“A sign is nothing to be afraid of. If anything, it is an inclusive sign. A way forward for the people that live there, all of the people that live there. It’s a pity that all of us couldn’t see it that way.”

While the debate rumbled on, a vote to proceed with the street sign was put to the floor. Seven councillors voted in favour, while seven voted against. As DUP councillor Scott Armstrong was chairing the committee, he had the casting vote, which was against.

A second proposal for a site visit for members of the planning committee was passed, with the vote flipped – Councillor Armstrong casting the deciding vote.

Members will now visit the Woodside area before deciding on the application later in the summer.

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