Cuts and splits: How the Irish language community’s most effective advocates are being silenced

At an event on the Newtownards Road on Thursday to open Belfast’s newest Irish language centre, Linda Ervine, sister in law of the late David Ervine, spoke of ‘An Ghaeilge’ as her language. It was nothing to hide or be afraid of speaking, an attitude which might come as news to some unionist politicians. While there was a celebratory mood in Skainos, the good humour belied the darker clouds gathering for Belfast based organisations which have contributed in various ways to the resurgence of Irish in Béal Feirste cois cuain and throughout Northern Ireland. Organisations such as Pobal, Iontaobhas Ultach and Forbairt Feirste were active before the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. They are now facing the withdrawal of their core funding and possible closure as a result of Foras na Gaeilge’s ‘New Funding Model’. Under this controversial model, the number of 19 core funded organisations is to reduced from 19 to six ‘lead organisations’ who will take responsibility for six different areas. These include:

  1. Irish medium education, preschool education and immersion education
  2. Education in the English medium sector
  3. Community and economic development
  4. Opportunities that promote the use of Irish and network development
  5. Increasing awareness of the Irish language, advocacy and representation
  6. Development of Irish language usage opportunities and networks for young people

As the successful organisations in each of these six categories would have responsibility for the island of Ireland under the new funding ‘arrangement’.  Effectively this meant that the southern based organisations would have a natural advantage in the competition for these roles. And that’s what’s come to pass.  Through no fault of their own, merely through the outworking of a process heavily weighted against them, the three main Irish language organisations were excluded from the competition as the contenders were whittled down gradually. While there may be a sense of grim satisfaction among some that Irish language organisations are facing a future without funding and possible closure, this does not take into account the valuable work they had been undertaking over the years and the experience and expertise they had garnered.

The further reality is that the southern based organisations who take over the all Ireland roles and funding are too busy fighting fires in the 26 counties borne out of the austerity regime don’t have the necessary experience or knowledge to take up the torches which have been carried so effectively to date by Pobal, Ultach and Forbairt Feirste.   Conradh na Gaeilge, the organisation most likely to take the advocacy role, is launching a ‘national’ campaign next week in Liberty Hall in Dublin.  There’s scant mention in the list of demands for the concerns of Northern Irish speakers, the slimmest of references to the absence strategy. The emphasis is on the many failures of the Dublin government, highlighted recently by the decision by the current Irish Language Commissioner, Seán  O Cuirreáin, to resign because of his frustration. with Government policy on Gaeilge.

Forbairt Feirste, for instance, has been promoting Irish in the economic sphere for almost 20 years.  It is now on the cusp of channelling millions of pounds of investment into West Belfast’s Gaeltacht Quarter programme, an ambitious project which aims at regenerating that sector of the city.    There is no Irish language organisation in the south with the vision or capacity to fill Forbairt Feirste’s role.   Fact.

ULTACH has had its dfficulties in the past, being seen as the non abrasive edge of the Irish language community and favoured as a result for NIO funding.  However it has done valuable work in promoting Irish in schools where the language would be described as ‘foreign’.  Its work has not been for the faint hearted, running the risk of incurring the wrath of Irish speakers for being too cosy with the powers that be and then going into places where angels would fear to tread in order to promote a greater awareness of the language.  This threat to the organisations future comes, ironically, at a time when its services are more in demand than ever as the ‘chill factor’ unfairly associated with Irish is dissipated. Pobal has brought a professional edge to Irish language advocacy not seen previously north or south.

The recently launched report on the implementation – or non implementation – of the European Charter of Minority Languages in respect of Irish in Northern Ireland is a document which effectively damns the slithering shenanigans of the NI Executive and the British Government and other institutions neglected their responsibilities under the Charter, the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrew’s accord in respect of Irish.  A case in point is the failure to implement an Irish Language Act and the non-appearance to date of a long promised ‘strategy’.    To say that government would be relieved and gratified to see the back of POBAL is not an understatement but is a telling testament to that organisation’s effectiveness. It’s widely believed among Irish speakers that British Secretaries of State including Peter Hain have threatened Unionists with the implementation of ‘Acht na Gaeilge’ unless they signed up to different agreements.   Perhaps that’s why the legislation is still not on the statute books despite being promised in the St Andrew’s Agreement.

There is a funding implication also.  A quarter of Foras na Gaeilge’s approximate £15m/€18m allocation comes from the NI Executive. Effectively, as a result of the new funding model, approved by North South Ministerial Council last July,  the North’s Irish speakers will be enduring taxation without representation.  One wonders what the Northern members of the board of Foras na Gaeilge make of this. It’s difficult to believe that the North’s Irish language sector is being dismantled as a result of an outworking of the Good Friday Agreement which was supposed to compel the parties to ‘take resolute action to promote the Irish language’.  Is this what was intended with the Agreement?  Is this what people voted for in that Summer of optimism back in 1998?  It’s not what I voted for.

Whatever the intentions back then, it seems certain that the Irish language community in the North will have to reinvent itself yet again in the not too distant future.  They have plenty of experience of this and have a philosophy of ‘ná h-abair, déan é/don’t say it, do it!’,  a can do attitude which the comparatively pampered Irish language sector south of the border could do well to adapt, especially if it intends to move northwards with any degree of success.  An example of this attitude is the Cultúrlann on the Falls Road, a building which was converted from an abandoned Presbyterian Church to a carpet warehouse to the leading Irish language cultural centre on the island.  In Dublin, Ireland’s capital, there is no similar centre nor any likeliehood that there will be one any time soon.   The Cultúrlann did not happen as a result of Government generosity. It was a result of the relentless pursuit of a vision by its founders, Gearóid  O Caireallain, Seamus Mac Seain and others, and gradually after many set backs managed to convince the authorities of its indispensability.  A Russian delegation travelling to Belfast recently requested the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister to visit the centre as they wanted to see how minority languages fared in NI.  They were accompanied on their tour by the then OFMDFM Junior Minister, Jeffrey Donaldson, a sight which surprised and delighted many Cultúrlann regulars.

It should be incumbent on not just Foras na Gaeilge, (which this time last year terminated the contract for the Irish language newspaper, Gaelscéal),  but the NI Executive and the Irish Government to explain how they see the emerging gaps being filled effectively and in a way which will reassure the North’s Irish language community that their concerns will be heard under the new arrangements.  Such a declaration has yet to emerge from this process.

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