The Stormont House Agreement arrived at as Christmas dawned was supposed to have heralded a new dispensation for Northern Ireland and yet here we are in early January with the same old theatrics. A Sinn Féin Minister proposes a consultation process on the long promised Irish Language Act (2006, St Andrews) and up pops that stalwart defender of minority language (Ulster Scots) and culture (Loyal orders etc), Nelson McCausland.
He doesn’t even know what’s in the proposed bill and yet he’s objecting to the consultation process because, he argues, it has no chance of being enacted as it won’t garner enough cross community support in the Assembly. As the only way it won’t garner enough cross community support is if the DUP oppose it, then Nelson is making a self fulfilling prophecy. Because he’s making this prophecy in the absence of sight of the proposed Bill, it’s clear that his opposition is based on prejudice more than any other factor.
And in his statements to the media, he’s had recourse to the ancient language of the 1980s, the hackneyed and very regrettable phrase ‘every word in Irish’ equals a ‘bullet in the cause of Irish freedom’. This is the language which should be consigned to the history books – rather than the Irish language which is alive and well in defiance of all attempts of premature burial by various cranks and opponents.
The important thing for all sides to realise is that the Irish language isn’t going away. It’s vibrant and being spoken day and daily by many in Northern Ireland. Some call it Irish, others Gaelic/Gaeilge. It’s the same language, incidentally, as the Gaidhlig language spoken in Scotland.
Nelson and others should look on the imminent publication of the Irish Language Bill as an opportunity to engage in a discussion on what provision is to be made for minority languages within Northern Ireland. There is no reason to suppose that an Irish Language Act would transform the North into a bilingual state overnight but it would be important recognition for a significant minority in the community.
They should feel free to raise issues regarding resources, rights and responsibilities in a mature way which reflects an openness to an Irish identity on the one hand – but an adherence to principles of prudence on the other.
The likelihood is that the forthcoming draft will not reflect what Irish speakers want in totality and will probably be a very watered down version of what is watery legislation as it is in the south or Scotland. In opposing any legislative protection for the Irish language, Nelson is in effect ensuring that Northern Ireland remains a second class component of the UK. That’s surely an illogical position for unionists.
All rhetoric aside, if we can at least have a discussion on what’s possible – and what’s not, well that would represent real progress towards this new dispensation. Otherwise we may as well batten down the hatches for a return to the pantomime days of Stormont past.