The Irish language belongs to us all, not just to Sinn Féin

It must be very tempting in this current highly charged atmosphere to convert any turn of events into an attack on Sinn Féin and Gerry Adams.   And God knows the party does provide the material for onslaughts.    However the recent ill-informed and ignorant ‘Curry My Yoghurt’ remarks of Gregory Campbell, and the subsequent farce of barring him from speaking in the Assembly for a day he was due to be in Westminster, doesn’t seem to me to be a candidate for such an assault on Gerry Adams and his colleagues.

According to the commentator, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Gregory’s remarks handed Sinn Féin a ‘free ticket to the moral high ground’.   Ruth falls into the trap – as did the Nolan Show last week – of believing that Sinn Féin somehow owns the Irish language as an issue.    So whenever the language is subjected to an illinformed assault as it is from time to time by mainstream unionist politicians, their first call is to the Sinn Féin Press Office.

In one way that’s fair enough though it reflects a lazy ill-informed attitude within journalism and broadcasting – the ‘reach for the Shinner’ reflex.  As an Irish speaker myself I want somebody to stand up for the language and if that’s Sinn Féin, well, it’s better than nothing.   In fact I’ll go further than that, in the dark days, when political vetting was excluding Irish language projects from access to public funding despite Irish language users contributing their taxes on the same basis as everyone else, Sinn Féin politicians such as Máirtín O Muilleoir, Pat Rice and, yes, Gerry Adams, stood up for the language when others were shamefully silent.   Nowadays people in the Irish language community are divided about Sinn Féin and its support for the Irish language – some say that they are merely using it as just one other element in their political armoury but there aren’t many who would deny that the party boasts among its members genuine and very hard working Irish language activists.

As much as I don’t doubt the genuine grá of these SF activists for An Ghaeilge, and appreciate their efforts to promote Irish in sometimes difficult circumstances,, I don’t doubt for a moment Ruth’s love for the Irish language, arising out of her mother’s interest in literature and learning.  Unfortunately, like Steven Nolan, her grá for Gaeilge turns quickly to resentment. She resents £270,000 being spent on translation of legislation at Stormont which are unread in English to Irish language versions which will be equally unread.  She thinks that if this money wasn’t spent on such ‘unnecessary translation’ it would be spent on services, hospital beds and school resources.    I too resent the misspending of such funds on unnecessary translation on redudant documents (in whichever language you care to mention) because, in my view, the money would have been more usefully spent on, for instance, funding an Irish language newspaper which was far more widely read than most translated public documents.

It’s more unfortunate again that Ruth uses her platform in the Belfast Telegraph to launch an attack on all efforts to promote Irish in Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland as a ploy by Sinn Féin to ‘encourage social division’.    The following claim is both ill-informed and damaging.

They’ve also used fraud to bolster their case for financial support. Republican papers and advice centres explained that anyone who knew what “Tiocfaidh ár lá” meant was entitled to tick the Irish-speaking box on census forms.

In my experience far more evidence is required to back a sound economic case for an Irish language related project than any other type of project and certainly more than some of the pet political projects of the NI Executive.  In any application for financial support for an Irish language related project in which I’ve been involved, global figures derived from the Census regarding the speaking of Irish, writing and understanding the language, form only a small part of the process.

The reality is that far more people in Northern Ireland have a far better grasp of Irish than the ‘cúpla focal’ or ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá’ which Ruth ascribes to them with apparent disdain and contempt.   Irish is a living language in in Belfast, Derry, Newry, Carntogher, Armagh, Omagh, Enniskillen, Strabane and Annalong, to name just a handful of communities throughout the north representing a far wider resurgence of Irish than Gregory Campbell, Jim Allister and others would like to acknowledge with relation to what they regard as a dead language..  For instance, what Ruth carelessly and  mistakenly describes as the ‘absurdity’ of a ‘Gaelic Quarter’ in west Belfast is actually a real live ‘Gaeltacht’ with several Irish medium schools, a thriving Cultúrlann, drama companies, a bookshop, a café, clubs and societies.    Sainsbury’s supermarket at the Kennedy Centre would put many similar shopping centres to shame with its bilingual signage.  Surely Ruth isn’t suggesting that Sainsbury’s is a front for Sinn Féin!

There are people who think Irish has a great literature and is a beautiful language and while I agree with those sentiments, I don’t go along with the implication that ordinary people, particularly those who hold political convictions aren’t agreeable, should leave Irish to the academics who can study it in a vacuous ivory tower, safe and sanitised from any possible ‘corrupting’ influence.

Irish is a language, a means of communication.  There’s no august body which has the authority to disallow a particular political party from speaking or using the language.    The fact that it’s being spoken widely throughout Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, should be welcomed and encouraged by all those who celebrate British values of tolerance and respect for cultural diversity in other areas.    People like Linda Ervine have seen this and are reclaiming the Irish language as part of their British and Irish identity.  They see that British and Irish identity aren’t mutually exclusive.  Gregory Campbell doesn’t see this and, it seems, despite her protestations of love for the language, Ruth Dudley Edwards also has a blind spot when it comes to An Ghaeilge.