I was listening to Evening Extra after a day which began with Paul Givan finding £50,000 to restore to the Líofa bursaries in his ministerial sofa and which featured a marvellous and energetic protest outside his department imploring him to continue his search to see whether he might find the missing Irish Language Act.
It was discouraging, I suppose, to listen to Mairtín Ó Muilleoir, an old friend, refusing to say whether or not his party would regard the introduction of Acht na Gaeilge as a red line issue before Sinn Féin would go back into a partnership government. Although I appreciate the reluctance of any party giving hostages to fortune which voters could remind them of in future campaigns if these promises aren’t delivered upon, I still felt a little disappointed when he didn’t say it out loud because that’s what is required. I know or I think I know that’s what he would like to say. One thing he did say did inspire me, though, and it’s this: that he had spoken with Jeffrey Donaldson about holding events to show a cross community, with the inclusion of republicans, appreciation of the sacrifice of those who died in the Battle of the Somme during that battle’s centenary. And he delivered on that. We had numerous events in west Belfast to commemorate the Somme. He asked how had the DUP reciprocated with relation to 1916. Not in the same measure, not by a proverbial mile.
Back to An Ghaeilge, I don’t think I’m alone in the Irish language community – the 300+ strong crowd outside the Causeway Exchange is an indication of the level of support for such a measure – in wanting the introduction and enactment of an Irish Language Act as a guaranteed element of any future power-sharing arrangement.
Call me unreasonable if you want but it’s high time there was such legislation. Here we are 19 years since commitments regarding the Irish language were included in the Good Friday Agreement and 10 years on from St Andrews which included a commitment to introduce an Irish Language Act. And we still don’t have an Irish Language Act or sufficient progress in guaranteeing delivery on commitments of the GFA with regard to Irish. The GFA guaranteed, for instance, adoption of the European Charter of Regional Minority Languages Part 3 in respect of Irish – currently the Northern Ireland Executive is in default of this as it is unable to deliver reports on the implementation for reasons explained before. In essence where we had progress, now we have regression. And that’s simply not good enough.
Mairtín and his colleagues in Sinn Féin are at one with most in the Irish language community in terms of a frustration with the ongoing petty insults from DUPers who feel they can offend Irish speakers at will. Sticks and stones will break our bones but, taken in isolation, names will never hurt us. However as the recent Líofa incident demonstrated, as well as previous decisions such as the axing by Edwin Poots of the Irish Language Broadcast Fund back in 2007 or the decisions by Peter Weir as Education Minister to close nurture units in Irish Medium schools or refuse their justifiable applications for transfers from one building to another, there is a cutting edge to these insults.
In an interview following Mairtín Ó Muilleoir, Paul Givan, the Minister for Communities for a little while longer, said that he had decided to reverse the cut to Líofa as he didn’t want to allow Sinn Féin to use that issue against the DUP in the election, he wanted to demonstrate how wrong it was to ‘weaponise’ the Irish language, which he says he respects, and though he recognised that SF would use the Irish language in its election platform, well, he wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of using his decision on Líofa to do so. Now, in announcing his U-turn, he said the original decision to cut the bursary scheme wasn’t political – it seems clear to me that the subsequent decision to restore it was political.
Here’s a radical suggestion for Paul and his colleagues in the DUP, if you’re really serious about making this election less orange and green and not allowing the Irish language to be ‘weaponised’ as you say, why doesn’t the DUP adapt a positive platform on the Irish language? Isn’t it part of all our heritage – that includes unionist heritage. Own it. It doesn’t belong to Sinn Féin, you say. I agree. It belongs to us all. But you must stake your claim.
Look at the work being done by Linda Ervine in East Belfast, a DUP stronghold. There are Irish classes in many areas which are being attended by people who vote for the DUP. In an interview the other night Paul Givan boasted that the Irish language was saved by unionists. Unionists can save it again.
Adapting as a party aim to introduce an Irish Language Act which puts Northern Ireland on the same footing linguistically as Scotland with its Acht na Gaidhlige or Wales with its Welsh Language Act will stun Sinn Féin beyond belief. Mike Nesbitt and Jim Allister are looking on from the sidelines waiting for you to roll over to Sinn Féin and concede that party’s demands of more concessions to Irish speakers after the election. That’s what they will be saying on the doorsteps. That the Líofa decision is a prelude to the DUP making a giant concession after the election to Sinn Féin.
So, get it out of the way. Get maximum advantage from it. Make it part of your manifesto. That the DUP will deliver a practical working Irish Language Act when returned to power. It may lose you some unionist votes – but it has the potential to damage Sinn Féin more than you will ever imagine. It could even smash Sinn Féin. It will help people from all communities forget the unfortunate mess that is the RHI scandal.
This latest episode has caused ructions. The Irish Times has blamed unionists for the latestbreakdown – that’s a first in my memory. If you carry on the way you’re going, you’ll be dealing with a Sinn Féin First Minister in the north and a Sinn Féin Taoiseach in the south.
You could adapt the same tactics regarding gay marriage. After all it’s in the rest of the UK – surely you want to be like the rest of the UK? The Irish language and gay marriage aren’t what you’re about, ok, so do like the famous poet said in his poem ‘Daoirse/Absence of Liberty’, Níl laistigh d’aon daoirse ach saoirse ón daoirse sin/When you accept an absence of liberty, you free yourself from that absence. Does that make sense to you?
You can get on with Brexit and all the other stuff you’re really interested in. You might even get the Republic of Ireland to rejoin the Commonwealth. Now that would be a feather in the cap. The possibility of achieving a United Ireland would be more distant than ever as one of the main reasons for seeking it, rights and recognition for Irish speakers, would have been removed as an issue. In fact it’s probable that the southern establishment, themselves no great advocates of Irish language rights, would build a border wall like that planned by Donald Trump between the USA and Mexico should such dangerous ideas filter southward.
Think outside the box and the current borderlines. Change the game – before the game changes on you. This is a challenge to you, no doubt, but it should be easy for the party which broke all its conventions to sit down with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness ten years ago. Ian Paisley secured his place in the history books – now it should be your turn.
Do I think you’ll take up the challenge? No, not really. You’re far too comfortable sitting back on your sofa enjoying the blistering heat from the RHI boilers and anticipating a brutal election. It will be a brutal election and we will anticipate a brutal outcome along the usual tribal and party lines. Everything will return to normal. The Sound of Silence will prevail. Hello darkness, my old friend!