Road traffic signs mark a soft border

The Irish Border has appeared frequently in the news as a major obstacle to a withdrawal agreement between the UK and the remaining 27 EU member states. In this article, Ronnie Cohen looks at a ‘soft’ characteristic of the current border – the change of measurement units on road traffic signs.

There is a common determination in both the UK and the Republic of Ireland to avoid a return to a hard border in order to maintain peace in Northern Ireland and honour the commitments made in the Good Friday Agreement. This ended many years of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland and Britain. However, there are disagreements about how this can be achieved. The proposals put forward by the British government to maintain a soft border have been met with scepticism, and rejected by the EU as unworkable.

The most visible sign that there is a border at a certain point on the road is the one showing the use of miles per hour in Northern Ireland. The Republic switched to kilometres for road distance and speeds in 2005, hence the need for the sign. A recent BBC report called The Hardest Border shows a sign that says “Welcome to NORTHERN IRELAND. Speed limits in miles per hour”. The second part of this sign would be unnecessary if Northern Ireland switched from Imperial to metric units for distance and speed.

The measurement division is also reflected in the muddled use of units in the BBC report. One part of the report states that, “The frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland runs for 310 miles”, while another part of the report has a heading, “The 499km squiggle.” As the report says, the only clue about the presence of the Irish border is the change in measurement units. Here is a quote from the report:

“Drive along the modern motorway that links Belfast to Dublin and the only clue that you have crossed is the subtle switch from signposts in miles to those in kilometres.”

Dual measurements are also used in a couple of places in the report. On the length of the border, it says “This border is 310 miles (499km) long.” Betty Holmes is quoted saying, “It is a good 308 km to Galway and what sort of a journey is that when there is radiotherapy sitting a few miles across the border?”

There is a quote from James Johnston who says, “It’s easier for us to send cattle from the mart here to England and Scotland after a sale than to send them 10 or 12 miles down the road a stone’s throw away across the southern border.” The report mentions someone who considered “moving a few miles down the road”.

The use of muddled measurements in the BBC report is surely strongly influenced by the measurement division on the island of Ireland where miles are used on road traffic signs in the north and  kilometres in the south. Why else would the BBC and the people who were featured in the report continue to use miles?

But perhaps we should not be surprised about the metric/Imperial divide. After all, the south left the British Empire in 1937, whereas the north is still part of its successor.

You can find the BBC report at

4 thoughts on “Road traffic signs mark a soft border”

  1. I do think the biggest thing that has been missed from any of this reporting is the old myth from the anti-metrication crowd that changing from imperial to metric would be a problem for the older generation and would be a major safety issue as people would struggle with the new units.

    I don’t recall reading about any massive increase in road traffic incidents in Ireland in recent years so perhaps that’s one myth that has been well and truly exploded.


  2. The only way there can be unity of units on Island of Ireland is for Northern Ireland to separate from the UK and become a part of Ireland. No more Northern Ireland, just Ireland.

    Since Scotland is not too happy with Brexit they can also separate from the UK and join Ireland and Northern Ireland in a Gaelic Union. The Gaelic Union could establish SI as its only legal system, complete the change-over and leave England and Wales to stew in their own gravy.


  3. The signs at the Northern Irish border telling drivers coming from the Republic of Ireland that speeds are in ‘miles per hour’ are pretty meaningless if the speedometer in your vehicle displays kilometers per hour and you do not know how to convert ‘miles per hour’ into kilometres per hour in your head. For decades, British roads leading to and from ports with links to the Continent have had signs to inform drivers arriving from the Continent what the speeds posted in ‘miles per hour’ actually mean in kilometres per hour. It would have made far more sense for an island like Ireland, which accommodates the Republic of Ireland and a part of the UK, Northern Ireland, to be considered as a integrated driving area and to use the same units of speed measurement on the roads.


  4. @Jake

    Quite right! Unfortunately, the political symbolism for the Unionists would be too much to bear. They fear unification of the island with the Republic and see it as the greatest danger, alas. That trumps reason and common sense when it comes to road signs, I’m afraid. 😦


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: