The Digital Border and the Euros

As we approach the vote on 23 June to decide whether or not the UK remains in the European Union, an increasing amount of the discussion has focused on the possibility of the erection of border posts along the boundary between Northern Ireland and the 26 counties should Brexit become a reality.

However there’s a very real border on this island already and it’s not been voted on at all. It’s what I call the digital border and as another European contest gets underway at the weekend, we will see the outworking of this as viewers sitting down to watch RTÉ coverage of the Euro 2016 with, for the first time, Irish language commentarywill be told ‘this programme is not available in your region’.

Back when the Good Friday Agreement was being discussed, most people in Belfast I know had TV aerials pointed southwards in order to watch the two RTÉ channels and, as it was then, Teilifís na Gaeilge, now TG4. No doubt they also watched BBC, UTV and Channel 4. Back then very few had a Sky subscription and satellite dish and others were connected to cable services.

Now digital TV rules. The southern facing aerial no longer work in the same way they did as the signal has been digitised and encrypted. Only if you have the appropriate TV equipment can you watch programmes in Belfast as if you were watching in Cork, where I’m from, or other points south of the border.

In the Good Friday Agreement there was a guarantee given about the right of everyone in Northern Ireland to identify themselves as Irish or British or both. If this is to mean anything it must mean I can support the Republic of Ireland football team in Belfast with the same facility as I would in Cork. If I can watch the match in Cork with the option of Irish language commentary I should be also be able to do so in Belfast.

Because the Irish language is involved also worth noting is the added guarantee that the British Government would take ‘resolute action where appropriate and where people desire it to promote the Irish language’.

So here’s an opportunity for resolute action to promote the Irish language and to show flexibility to circumvent a development which was unforeseen by politicians when they agreed the Good Friday accord text which they put to – and secured a mandate for implementation from – the people north and south.

With little more effort than that called for in a few phone calls between Belfast and Dublin, BBC NI could arrange to take the RTÉ Irish language commentary and offer it via their ‘red button’ to viewers in the north who might not be able to watch the match with Irish language commentary otherwise. If the Belfast based public service broadcaster wanted to go the extra mile it could arrange for Irish language commentary for Northern Ireland’s matches and offer it as an option in the north and to RTÉ for its coverage south of the border.

That could go some way to reducing the chill factor which many viewers in the north feel with relation to the Northern Ireland football team. I wish Michael O’Neill and his squad the best in the European Championships but I’m a Republic of Ireland supporter if and when it comes to a clash between the Green and White Army and Martin O’Neill’s team! Imagine how showing the Northern Ireland games with commentary as Gaeilge would support that team’s supporters, a small but growing number of whom are opening up to learning Irish thanks to the efforts of Linda Ervine and others.

Sporting organisations such as the GAA, the IFA, the FAI and the IRFU should in the future stipulate in their contracts with broadcasters that an option for Irish language commentary should be offered by whichever broadcaster wins the rights to cover their games. After all they all claim to be looking for greater audiences and this is one cost effective way towards realising that aim.

In the meantime, I’m getting ready to watch with many others the coverage of both Irelands’ first games in the European Championships. On Monday, thanks to a recently installed Saorview box and the decision by RTÉ, we will be able to watch Ireland take on Sweden with commentary as Gaeilge in An Chultúrlann. We’ve gone the extra mile, it’s now time for BBCNI and other local broadcasters to catch up.