Sinn Féin to the fore for the photo, to the rear of the movement

Sinn Féin, with the shamelessness we’ve become accustomed to from Establishment politicians, were to the fore in today’s ‘LáDearg’ parade in Belfast with several aspiring candidates behind a banner proclaiming the party’s support for an Irish Language Act in the north.

Shameless because the several thousand protesters who paraded in colourful good form from the Cultúrlann on the Falls Road to the Custom House Square were expressing their anger at decisions in which Sinn Féin members had participated and, indeed, hailed as positive earlier this year.

Among the marchers, for instance, were the soon to be unemployed workers of Iontaobhas ULTACH, Altram and POBAL, who were campaigning for an end to the axing of their funding. When this decision was announced in January by Foras na Gaeilge, a body whose board boasts four Sinn Féin members, it was hailed by no less than Rosie McCorley MLA, the party’s Irish language spokesperson in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Apparently this new ‘All Ireland’ arrangement would herald a new era for the Irish language. Well, it’s certainly done so in the north as the Irish language community’s mainstays for the past number of years, since well before the Good Friday Agreement, are shortly, as of 30 June, to be no more.

It’s almost three years since Coláiste Feirste took the Department of Education to the High Court demanding the right to free travel from County Down and north Belfast to the high performing Irish medium secondary school. There the lawyers for the then Minister, Caitríona Ruane, argued that the Good Friday Agreement was an aspirational document and therefore the Department or the Minister were not liable to implement the free travel rule for Irish speakers. In many cases half empty buses go to some fee paying Belfast schools leaving the Coláiste Feirste students with a bad case of Rosa Parkes syndrome. At least she got on the bus.

Despite a favourable ruling by Justice Treacy, the children from Ardoyne are being told they will not get free travel. They are being advised instead to walk to school, down the Shankill Road, wearing their green school uniform. It’s easy to see that no Sinn Féin politician would enforce their own child to run this gauntlet. This case was made by a courageous Coláiste Feirste student from the podium at the parade. It’s hard to know such was the crowd whether the Sinn Féin banner bearers stuck around for that speech.

Earlier today the editors of two Belfast based Irish language magazines destined for the axe, thanks to the Foras, spoke at a public meeting in the Cultúrlann voicing their disappointment at the decision to withdraw meagre funding – £16k annually in the case of An tUltach. The Sinn Féin members of the board of Foras na Gaeilge have been conspicuous by their silence in the defence of these magazines. In the case of An tUltach, this year celebrating its 90 anniversary, it was a particularly cruel blow as the committee had made great strides in addressing a number of issues, including distribution and web presence in the past year. Yet the Foras pulled the plug without ceremony and the funding runs out at the end of June. Nós mag has recently won a significant design award – it too has been told it’s to go to be replaced by a yet to be specified ‘lifestyle’ magazine.

No doubt Sinn Féin members of Foras na Gaeilge are too busy running for election to be immersed in the detail of the effect of their actions/inactions – but it won’t escape the attentions of Irish language speakers voting this May, north and south. It’s not likely to have any substantial effect though as the party will likely increase its share of the vote and seats in council and Euro elections as, down south at least, it is making the most noise.

Back to that banner.  It’s by no means clear that Sinn Féin has any notion it will ever see the enactment of an Irish Language Act in Northern Ireland in the short or long term.  There appears to be no coherent strategy to bring it about – except to occasionally wave it in front of Unionist politicians in order to cause the red mist to drift down over their field of vision as they, inevitably, say never, never, never.  The fact that they were pictured behind the banner in today’s parade on the front page of the BBC NI website won’t hasten the day that the legislation, promised in the St Andrew’s Agreement, will be enacted by Stormont.