Cold and stormy at ‘Cnoc an Anfa’

I was up in Stormont yesterday – Cnoc an Anfa is the Irish for Stormont – and it certainly lived up to its name.  It was bitterly cold, so cold I could feel my fingers begin to detach themselves from my body as I clutched my ‘Acht Gaeilge’ placard at the bottom of the steps of that grandiose building.

There were around a hundred of us, participating in an anti-racism pro diversity demonstration, called to demand an Irish Language Act to protect the north’s Irish speakers the same way that the Gaidhlig speakers of Scotland and the Welsh speakers of Wales are protected by having their language accorded to official status with attendant rights for citizens and responsibilities for the authorities.

It was the second such demonstration in a week – last week Pobal and Turas, the organisation established in East Belfast by Linda Ervine, had handed in a letter to Stormont politicians.   On that occasion the groups were met by a substantial delegation from Sinn Féin, a lone member of the SDLP, Dominic O Brollcháin (Bradley), members of the Alliance Party and Basil McRea.   The reception was sunnier than it was yesterday as there were no unionist politicians present to hear the demands of the Irish speakers plus the singing of the pupils of Bunscoil an Droichid.

Whether or not any real accommodation is likely on the Irish Language and the legislation promised in the St Andrew’s Agreement is moot.  In today’s Belfast Telegraph, British Prime Minister David Cameron doesn’t mention the Irish Language Act promised by the previous British Governnent at the St Andrew’s talks in 2006.  It was suspected back then that the Brtish had promised this as a threat to compel the DUP to share power in Sinn Féin.  Whatever the case back then, however, it remains an unfulfilled commitment.

One of the reasons it remains unfulfilled is the sleight of hand by the British that turned the promised legislation into a devolved matter.  The Good Friday Agreement had committed the British Government to signing up to the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages.  This non binding charter entailed the British Government signing up to a range of commitments of support for the promotion of Irish in sectors such as the courts, the education system, public administration, youth affairs and, significantly, the media.

The Charter, non binding as it is, is an a la carte affair giving governments options which they can affirm or not and, in general, the British Government/NI Executive only signed up to commitments which were already being fulfilled or which were on the verge of being met.

This is where I declare my own interest.  Among the commitments adapted in respect of Irish in Northern Ireland was this:

to encourage and/or facilitate the creation and/or maintenance of at least one newspaper in the regional or minority languages;

Back when that commitment was made Lá/Lá Nua was being published on a daily basis.  Since 2008 when that newspaper folded after the failure of Foras na Gaeilge to come to its aid, that commitment has not been met by the facilitation/encouragment of the publication of a newspaper in Irish in Northern Ireland.   In 2009 and 2013 when the British Government was obliged to submit reports re their implementation of the Charter to the Council of Europe, they omitted the section on the implementation of the commitments re the Irish language leading to a rebuke for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office from the Council of Europe (and a consequent reverberation down the chain of command which eventually reached Stormont, no doubt).   The deadline for the 2013 report was also missed.  The report still hasn’t been submitted.  I find it difficult to understand how a Government can stand idly by while it is being shown up for the failure of a constituent regional assembly/executive to meet international commitments.

While it’s by no means the only factor, the failure to implement and report on the implementation of the European Charter wrt Irish in Northern Ireland has fed into the growing demands for legislative protection for the Irish language in Northern Ireland where now, it seems, it is at least back on the table (if on the fringes!).  It seems to have been placed on the table by Gregory Campbell’s ill considered remarks of late though it’s not mentioned in an admittedly broadbrush article by David Cameron in this morning’s Belfast Telegraph.

While at Stormont yesterday I got a briefing from a SF source who told me that the problem with the promised Irish Language Act – as with many other matters – was the failure of the British Government to live up to its commitments under St Andrew’s.  That had a knock on effect on the Unionist negotiators who saw no need to live up to their commitments if the British did not choose to adhere to commitments such as the one made re the Irish language.

Of course you could spend the day arguing over the niceties of language.  For example the British promised to ‘introduce’ an Irish Language Act but introducing prospective suitors may not necessarily mean they wind up getting engaged or married down the line, especially given the demonstrable antipathy of most unionist politicians to the language.    In 2006, there was another game being played, of course, in that the British promise re the Irish Language Act if there was no deal was among the telling factors which compelled unionist politicians to come to the table and negotiate for powersharing devolution which would allow the very same unionist politicians to derail any proposed Irish Language Act.    Subsequently when power-sharing came about, the fact that the DUP took the DCAL Ministry, with lead responsibility for the Irish Language Act, meant that it would never gravitate to the top of the priority list.  I remember overhearing a leading Sinn Féin activist speaking at the time to a friend of mine, explaining that the party’s decision not to take DCAl, and thus responsibility for Irish language promotion across a range of areas, was deliberate and strategic as they thought then that DCAL would most likely be subsumed into another department in a planned re-organisation.   A desperate mistake, I thought, and that has been borne out by subsequent events and the fact that an Irish language sympathetic minister is now in place means that person is really fighting a losing battle in that department trying to remedy the damage already done.

How to get back on track? Well it may mean that the nationalist parties and all others who wish to see an Irish Language Act – or profess publicly that they do – having to take one step back to take two steps forward.   For instance if they were to argue for the inclusion of broadcasting responsiblities re the Irish Language in a new Act that would mean that the Act could not be a devolved matter and would be decided in Westminster, as Welfare Reform has been, and therefore Unionist politicians would not have an effective veto.  Is this likely to occur?  Probably not, given that both Sinn Féin and the SDLP are more likely to want more devolution than less.     It would be refreshing if unionist politicians could see this and inform themselves more fully about the Irish Language Act and what it should entail – they could be in a position to put Sinn Féin and the SDLP between a rock and a hard place by having a more nuanced position on the Irish Language Act – ie the Irish language is as much a British language as it is an Irish language and we Unionists are for British rights for British languages and take it from there.

This too is unlikely to happen. I was in Stormont’s Great Hall last week in the company of a prominent DUP politician who was all for the Gaidhlig and Welsh languages but drew the line of supporting the Irish language lest he be tainted. In his narrow world view, 99% of Irish language activists are in Sinn Féin and in order for the Irish language to be absolved of that original sin, each non Sinn Féin Irish speaker would have to disavow all links with Sinn Féin speakers of the language.   This was rich indeed coming from a person who sat in Government with….Sinn Féin.

What’s more likely to occur if there’s no progress at this latest instalment of the talks is more status quo and retrenchment of positions.   The DUP, split as it is internally with rival wings trying to rush like lemmings to one cliff or the opposite cliff, will only succeed in driving more people towards Sinn Féin and making proper devolution less likely.    As a result they can also expect less co-operation on matters such as marches/parades, flags and the ‘past’.     Will the ‘blame game’ succeed as it has done before in getting voters who are increasingly staying away in greater numbers from the ballot box to give them the necessary support to become kingmakers in Westmister?    Sinn Féin, with eyes firmly focused southwards on Dublin and the 2016 elections, may have to rely on the continuation of partition as the only way to hide their failures in government north of the border from the southern electorate.  Though SF is now according to some opinion polls in contention to become the main party of a new government, it’s facing stiff competition on its left flank from independents and recent political outcries over the murky past may make it difficult for them to find coalition partners after a 2016 election.  At 22%  of the polls, they will definitely need coalition partners.

It may be early to say but I think Irish language activists will need to return to Stormont and find other ways to make our language part of the talks as it seems to me there’s no likeliehood of anything more than a sticking plaster solution to the present crisis.

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  • Reader

    Concubhar: Since 2008 when that newspaper folded after the failure of Foras na Gaeilge to come to its aid, that commitment has not been met by the facilitation/encouragment of the publication of a newspaper in Irish in Northern Ireland.
    Do you insist on a partitionist delivery? It seems that the British Government could meet that particular requirement with a bit of cash and a few kind words for an all-Ireland newspaper. The Irish Government might like that approach too.

  • Old Mortality

    ‘responsibilities for the authorities’

    And there’s the rub. Responsibilities generally involve expense. Perhaps you could elaborate?
    Is ‘Cnoc an Anfa’ a literal translation of Stormont or is it the name of the townland in which the building is situated? Since the name Stormont is probably of French origin, I’d have thought that Irish speakers would have been happy to leave it alone, just like d’Olier Street in Dublin.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    I don’t insist on a partitionist delivery, far from it. While I was editor of Lá/Lá Nua, it had an all Ireland approach. This is just an account of what happened and the consequences. There is a new Irish language news website based in Conamara with all Ireland funding and remit – however its interest and reportage of matters north of the border is tokenist at best. (At its launch it commissioned an opinion poll which was focused on the south only.)

  • delphindelphin

    ‘Stormount’ is in the townland of Ballymiscaw
    The name of the townland of Ballymiscaw is recorded as Ballisnekah al. Ballisnesca in the Hamilton Patent of 1620 and the most satisfactory interpretation of the place-name is Baile Lios na Scáth ‘townland of the fort of the shadows or spectres’.

    So no change there.

  • Ernekid

    I feel that an Irish Language Act is an inevitability. It’s only a matter of time.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    For a start, OM, Irish speakers contribute to the economy and society by working and paying taxes. So if some public money is invested in the Irish language, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact as demonstrated in Scotland, Gaidhlig contributes £150m+ to the economy on an annual basis. I’m not calling for duplication of all official documents into Irish – but a small number of the most used/sought documents could be translated. Education is a right – it should be available to those who seek it in Irish. The education would have to be provided anyhow – so that’s not an ‘expense’ that wouldn’t be expended anyhow. Broadcasting, the BBC already get the license fee so building an Irish language component into their public service remit wouldn’t cost anything extra, just a reallocation of resources within the BBC funding. Perhaps their execs could take a pay cut? I could go on….

  • Barneyt

    “Are Sinn Fein being at last tempted to take their seats at Westminster to join the SNP in leverage with a Labour government?”

    Why do you present this as a possibility? I can see that a collapse in the Assembly would bring about direct rule and the debating chamber would be lost in the short term, but its hardly likely that Sinn Fein would take up their seats in London?

    If it is argued that SF are somehow keeping the “active” element at bay with a wait and see approach, such a move would cut the ties permanently. It would encourage the so called dissidents further (told ye so thinking) and those impatient with all-Ireland progress, to reject SF. All hell could break loose.

    I suspect those of a moderate disposition, perhaps considering giving SF a vote for the first time, would be turned off by such a move. For a host of reasons, that is surely not ever going to happen.

    I have to say that the Assembly and even the power sharing is not working. Policies are arrived at and pursued, not necessarily through political belief or aspiration, but with an eye on maintaining the executive.

    There is no real accountability in the north. Then again at times we have two governments, and each can undermine the other for good and bad reasons.

    Yes it should perhaps collapse. We should risk going for a governmentopposition and the guaranteed coalition that would form. Is there is a risk to nationalismrepublicanism? Perhaps, but not to the same degree 30 years ago.

    Initially the government that forms would be tribal, and perhaps need the assistance of the Alliance or another king maker. In time, the unthinkable could occur. Some players on the PUL side may elect to joing a SFSDLP party on the basis that they receive social justice for the communities they serve. I’m thinking of the working class elements if the PUL community. I don’t see that the UUPDUP or even TUP can truly serve them. It might just allow some real politics to emerge.

    I do believe that if you encourage communication between those that are vehemently opposed to each other, you achieve a greater gain and understanding.

    It does need some form of shake up and risk. GovCoal is perhaps a risk worth taking.

  • Practically_Family

    I would expect to see nothing from Westminster that rustles the jimmies of the DUP before the next general election.

  • Kevin Breslin

    No one is being driven to Sinn Féin, if any force is rising within (northern based) Irish nationalist circles it’s the independents and socialist groups.

  • Kevin Breslin

    There’s Irish language speaking communities in Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Wales and London. I have no problem with any British based Irish language paper being created either.

  • Old Mortality

    ‘Gaidhlig contributes £150m+ to the economy on an annual basis.’

    Where did you get that figure from? I’m mystified as to how the act of speaking a language increases output, unless it attracts large numbers of tourists wanting to speak or learn it.
    Of course, by the idiotic conventions of public sector accounting, all spending must have an equivalent output which is included in GDP.
    In other words if you spend £150m of public money, you have magically contributed £150m to the economy, regardless of what the money is spent on.
    Conceivably, it may add £150m to the economy of the linguistic communities to the extent that the spending is not paid for by their taxes. But that’s £150m that wasn’t spent somewhere else.
    I’ve no argument about education but it may cost more because of the need for specialist teachers to acquire the necessary competence in the language.

  • Reader

    I disagree. Cameron could do what he likes to the DUP right now; knowing that the DUP will be even more desperate for coalition in May than he will be himself.
    Cameron’s problem this week isn’t the DUP, it’s the Stormont deal as a whole.

  • Demolinguist

    The news service Meon Eile covered the demonstration at Stormont and interviewed more than half a dozen who were there, but I couldn’t help but notice that Carál Ní Chuilín was the only one to speak in English. In fact I’ve never heard her speak Irish in any interviews related to a proposed Act or the Irish language. This is why unionist arguments about tokenism are not entirely baseless, when you have one of the primary advocates of an Irish Language Act apparently unable to carry on a basic conversation in the language!

    copy and paste link, disqus doesn’t likes fadas in links, apparently…ógadh-na-ngael-ag-stormont

  • Reader

    Old Mortality: Where did you get that figure from?
    The link he supplied last time was from a language advocacy movement which suggested that the language could maybe be leveraged to provide up to that amount due to tourism and exports. That is, £150m is an optimistic hypothetical projection from an optimistic organisation.
    When they take their business proposals to their bank manager instead of hassling their MSPs it will be time to take note.

  • Demolinguist

    The second point is that Linda Ervine has come out against an Irish Language Act at this particular time. She is quoted as saying an act “would do more damage than good if it was put in place too soon” and Irish must become “accessible to the Protestant community beforehand in order for any process to work” and she is certainly to the forefront in this regard.

    Consider the proposals by POBAL, which is the primary driving force behind the campaign for an Act. It seeks to make every council and public body in Northern Ireland bilingual and have Irish as an official language in NI on a statutory basis.

    It is a recipe for cultural conflict.

    POBAL’s proposals are set out in detail here:

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    No there’s nothing hypothetical or optimistic about this – it’s based on hard nosed analysis of the current situation….—ar-st-ras-g-idhlig.html

  • Demolinguist

    For example, POBAL’s vision for local authorities attached below…

    ..yet Northern Ireland simply doesn’t have enough fluent, habitual speakers (approx. 4,200 people said Irish was their ‘main language’ in the 2011 census, for example) to justify such demands or to provide the necessary staff to fulfill them.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    Given that Linda Ervine is the sister in law of the late David Ervine rather than his widow, I’m not too sure about the accuracy of that report from Inside Ireland…..

  • Demolinguist

    It’s a mistake I’ve seen made before, but I doubt they misattributed her words. The substantive question is whether there is a large enough bloc of Irish speakers to justify POBAL’s very ambitious and wide-ranging demands. Have they learned nothing of the experiences in the Republic over the past decade? A blanket approach isn’t efficient or effective. You can’t treat communities in east Antrim or north Down in the same way as Carn Tóchair or the Falls Road in terms of legislation or language planning, just as you can’t treat Ros Muc the same as Roundwood.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    The position you attributed to Linda Ervine is not her current stance. That was a statement she made last year during a discussion with the Committee on the Implementation of the GFA. Last week she put her name to a letter handed in to Stormont supporting legislative protection for the Irish language, not necessarily the Acht na Gaeilge being sought by POBAL. Pobal are entitled to set out the best possible deal for the Irish language – however any Irish language legislation should prioritise the issues of greatest importance and deal with them accordingly. ie there would be no need at the outset to have an Irish language translator in every Council chamber…. What we need now is a discussion as to the shape and content of an Irish Language Act and though Pobal’s submission should not be lightly discounted, it’s a matter for debate etc.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    Unionists regularly make arguments for Ulster Scots culture but don’t speak Ulster Scots. Caral Ní Chuilinn is a learner of Irish and she is making progress. She is the Minister and this is the position of her party. She is entitled to support an Irish Language Act because she thinks its right, not because she has to be a native Irish speaker herself. On the issue of tokenism, I do think that Unionist politicians who oppose the Irish Language Act and the Irish language and any expression of Irishness do so as a ‘token’ of their ‘unionism’ not because they’ve given any great thought to the matter. It’s a tribal thing – and the pity about is that it’s out of tune with a growing number of the ‘tribe’!

  • Demolinguist

    Sloppy reporting by InsideIreland, in that case. Having read POBAL’s proposal I did get a sense that they were setting out the most ambitious plan possible, which is fair enough I suppose. I do agree with you that there needs to be a wider debate about the place (and space(s) for Irish in NI). There is a striking lack of Irish-medium secondary schools, for example, with only 1 currently and another on the way, but this sector should be expanded significantly.

  • Reader

    From the executive summary (fortunately my PDF reader could invert the section in English, which was upside-down)
    “Potential economic value of Gaelic as an asset to the Scottish economy could be in the region of between £82M AND £149M!”
    So, I repeat my own words:
    “That is, £150m is an optimistic hypothetical projection from an optimistic organisation.”
    And, having also browsed the methodology, I would suggest that “brass-necked” is a better description than “hard nosed”.

  • barnshee

    “and the pity about is that it’s out of tune with a growing number of the ‘tribe”

    Falls about laughing — and the number of protestants studying Irish at any level is?— wait a minute her she comes.

    The “Irish” industry failed to take its opportunity to put clear water between itself and the murder gangs early on.
    Its now tainted -tough-live with it

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    The number is growing, which is the point I’m making, and the number of people voting for Unionist ‘nay saying’ politicians is reducing. If anyone’s tainted, it’s those politicians and NOT the Irish language.

  • Demolinguist

    The Irish language exam requirement for the civil service was abolished in 1974, so you’re only forty years behind the times.

  • barnshee

    “The number is growing,”

    Figures please –say the numbers of protestants entered for GCSE Irish — a modest enough achievement I would have thought and a good barometer of the success of the “Irish Industry” success in attracting the recalcitrant prod.
    Then you could add the data for the undoubted success of these candidates

  • barnshee

    Give a reasonable deadline -1 month? for agreement.

    In the absence of agreement all MLA and ministerial salaries and expenses are withdrawn.

    End of

  • Demolinguist

    It’s also a State with two official languages, and the situation in Northern Ireland at different in many ways. Arguments about the utility of Irish were being made by Anglophones when Irish was more widely spoken than English. For them, it wasn’t simply a numbers game. That attitude persists.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    I think you can find these figures for yourself, if you think they’re relevant. Given the fact that some schools don’t offer Irish, because of a misguided sense of what education is, it may not be the place to look. I’m meeting Protestants of all ages and classes who are seeking Irish classes and are resentful because a combination of factors has denied them this opportunity in the past.

  • barnshee

    none then

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    You appear to have a real complex – demanding people provide you with specific figures. Figure this one out, that day is gone. If you want to disprove my assertion, you get the figures you think will do the job.

  • barnshee

    I am not the one promoting Irish

    Out of 17 state schools so far contacted- I cannot find a single state school offering Irish as a subject
    I do not think I need to ring any more -QED I think

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    Fair play to your industry. However, that fact merely proves my case. State Schools not offering Irish is part of the problem – and the result is growing numbers of Protestants attending evening classes/further learning classes in order to correct this omission in their education. Thank you for that. As you say yourself QED – Quite Easily Done/Quot Erat Demonstrandum! – as my maths teacher used to say! Go raibh maith agat!

  • Scots Anorak

    “Stormont” is actually a Scottish place-name. The original is in Perthshire, and it is of Celtic rather than French origin.

  • Bryan Magee

    Is that pronounced “cocks and arses”?

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    I’m not sure what you mean….please explain what do you think would be pronounced ‘Cocks and arses’?

  • Bryan Magee

    The name for Stormont – and the people therein 🙂

  • jimbo

    So explain why the newspaper folded? Perhaps no one wanted to buy it.( Because not enough people understand it) Anyway how introverted and selfish is it to spend thousands of pounds on Gaelic translations. Who actually benifits. I don’t belive there is one person in Northern Ireland who speaks only Gaelic and cannot speak English. However there are people who speak Chinese or Polish exclusively and are ignored by the English speakers who fantasise about an Gaelic Speaking country. Time to grow up. Speak gaelic to your hearts content but when we have to cancel operations in a hospital to print a gaelic leaflet that virtually no one can understand ask yourself why. In a balanced view Ulster Scots is a joke made up to counteract the non existent Gaelic speakers.

  • duineodhoire

    You might be being a bit unfair to there, a Chonchubhair. Of the ten news-articles currently featured on Page 1 of the national news section of the online paper at the moment four out of the ten are to do with the North. Yes, their polls are very 26-county focussed but on the whole I think they are trying to cover Northern matters to a reasonable extent. The main problem with Tuairisc, I think, is a lack of resources to deal with breaking news stories.