Belfast’s County Orange Order Grandmaster George Chitick may protest that he never intended to offend Irish speakers with his exhortation to Protestants not to learn the language he termed part of the ‘republican’ agenda. But Irish speakers in Belfast and throughout the north are well used to such insults, going back to the time of Sammy Wilson’s infamous ‘leprechaun language’ jibe and beyond. While it’s disappointing, it’s not surprising and life will go on. Grand Master Chitick may be surprised to know – but the fact is that the Irish language is far from being part of the ‘republican agenda’- more on that later.
What is a matter of concern, however, is the naked threat the Grand Master’s comments represent to the growing resurgence of Irish being led by the likes of Linda Ervine and her coounterparts in the Skainos centre on the Newtownards Road, people who could lay as much claim to the labels Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist as Mr Chitick and who feel that speaking Irish is no threat to their identity. On the contrary, they feel it enhances their identity.
Were Mr Chitick’s words to have what appears to be their desired effect – create a ‘chill factor’ around speaking Irish among those Protestants, Unionists and Loyalists who are attending Irish classes in increasing numbers throughout Belfast – it would be a matter of grave concern to Irish speakers everywhere. It’s curious and disappointing that the BBC reporter didn’t actually speak to an Irish speaker to guage reaction, substituting his own assumption instead.
In fact it would and should be a matter of grave concern to anyone who values rights such as ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘identity’ anywhere.
It would be tempting to describe Mr Chitick as a ‘yesterday’s man’ – though Irish speakers, according to 1911 census figures abounded in the unionist community in that era.
The comments that Irish is part of the ‘republican agenda’ are so off the mark in Belfast today however that they could cause amusement except that the subject is so serious.
Irish speakers are in open revolt against Sinn Féin over that party’s failure to protect front line Irish language workers campaigning for language rights from swinging cuts by the crossborder body, Foras na Gaeilge. I attended an emergency meeting on Thursday night at which one of the suggestions from the floor was a picket on the Sinn Féin offices on the Falls Road. The organisations facing the sharp end of the cuts include Pobal, the umbrella group for Irish language organisations which last month had its critique of slow Stormont progress on language rights endorsed by the Council of Europe, Iontaobhas ULTACH, which has for years pioneered cross community promotion of the Irish language, Altram, which promotes early year education for Irish speaking preschool children and Forbairt Feirste who are involved in successful ventures to promote Irish in the economic sphere.
While there are many Irish speakers within Sinn Féin, the party has stood idly by on a number of occasions when Irish language projects were under threat – the case of the daily newspaper, Lá, comes to mind. Sinn Féin’s then education minister, Caitriona Ruane, was sued, successfully, by Coláiste Feirste, over her refusal to allow students from Downpatrick avail of free bus travel to attend the north’s only Irish medium secondary school in Belfast, a right freely afforded to students attending other Belfast schools from outlying areas.
Irish speakers are also angry at Sinn Féin’s Culture Minister, Caral Ní Chuilinn, who has failed to protect the organisations from the effects of a carve up of Irish language funding which has totally excluded northern based Irish language groups. All the funding has gone to southern based organisations even though 25% of the funding for the Foras comes from the Northern Ireland Executive.
So not alone are Mr Chitick’s comments offensive and ill-advised, they are also based on a mistaken understanding that the political agenda of northern Irish speakers and Sinn Féin are one and the same, a contention which may be borne out in the forthcoming elections.
One of the probable effects of Mr Chitick’s outburst, however, is to deepen the antipathy of Irish speakers to the Orange Order – an organisation which also contains Irish speakers by the way – and thus further aid what he terms the ‘republican agenda’. Maybe that’s what he wanted all along.