Saturday, January 08, 2005

The march of metric

In their rush to become fully integrated European, the Irish political élites are taking one further step into the dark Рby 20 January, every mileage speed-limit sign in the country will be replaced by signs in kilometres - all 36,000 of them.

Metric units – or at least, the bastardised EU version of them - were introduced following Ireland's entry to the EU in 1973 but the public has so far failed to embrace them. According to the Irish Times: "Many of us still think in imperial measures, whether it's asking for a pint in the pub or a pound of meat at the deli counter."

The newspaper cites Rita Fagan, "spokesperson" for WeightWatchers Ireland, which has 60,000 members in the State. She has been working in the company for 27 years. "Even younger people prefer to be weighed in stones," she confirms.

"We have weighing machines where the weight comes up in both kilos and stones, but Irish people almost always look at the imperial weight, whereas other Europeans will go for metric every time. They wouldn't have an idea what a pound or a stone was. From my experience, without a shadow of a doubt, Irish people are reluctant to convert to metric. The only way they are ever going to make us is to have only one system. While there are two, we'll always go for the one we know best."

At Dunnes Stores in Dublin's St Stephen's Green Shopping Centre, pre-packed food comes in metric weights. At counters such as the meat and deli areas, and the salad bar, where goods are sold loose, prices are offered in both metric and imperial units. A deli spokesperson confirms most customers ask for their meat to be weighed by the imperial method.

However, the Garda are warning this week that there will be no "honeymoon" period for motorists to use confusion over kilometres as an excuse for breaking the speed limit. The metric police will be out in force, while leaflets detailing the changes being mailed to about 1.6 million households in the Republic. Interestingly, they are being published in English, Arabic, Chinese, French, Portuguese and Russian.

In neighbouring Northern Ireland, the British government is having to erect new speed signs on major border crossings - emphasising that the north’s signs remain in miles, not kilometres. Watch for the siren voices that start suggesting that Northern Ireland should convert as well, for the sake of "consistency", harmonisation, or some such - even "road safety".

One thing for sure, these people will never give up until we are all assimilated.

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