Among Sinn Fein’s list of grievances claiming lack of unionist respect is the failure to introduce an Irish Language Act. It is an important but seemingly not a red line issue. Oddly enough this may make it more amenable to settlement. It is among the SDLP’s desirables. It looks as if Enda Kenny will back it in whatever happens after the Assembly election.
At first glance the chances of any sort of development are unpromising. It raises all the hackles and is easy campaign fodder. As David has reported below, with her familiar lightness of touch Arlene Foster has borne down on the language issue in her undiplomatic reply to Sinn Fein’s “diplomatic offensive.” We need not take this as the last word after 2 March. As she knows, Mrs Foster misses the point while Ms O’Neill has declined to lock horns on the issue.
We know how on this as in many others, rival parties make a battlefield out of the fine print of legal entitlements and equality impact assessments. This gets us precisely nowhere.
In this and in other identity matters, the DUP make a rod for their own back without noticeable gain when we pass out of election mode. They have to live with Irish in some form and could so easily make a better fist of it. Movement on the language would cost unionists nothing politically and very little financially. If Sinn Fein are to be held responsible for any recent diminution of “Britishness”, it can be debated alongside their respectful recognition of the Queen and Armistice Day, the quiescent state of the ” flegs” dispute and their interest in Orange traditions.
If we think laterally for a minute, we could convert the Language Act standoff into a confidence building move towards nationalists without giving way to fantasies of Irish cultural imperialism. For unionists the beauty of the idea would be to take nationalists by surprise and give them something they actually want which does not detract from what unionists actually have. It might – although I don’t push this too hard – even be treated as a trade-off to allow Arlene Foster to resume as First Minister until the Coghlin inquiry passes its verdicts.. A solution would address Mrs Foster’s revealingly fearful image : “if you feed a crocodile, it will keep coming back for more.”
Irish is already much more visible in Northern Ireland. The DUP accept it, muttering. It provides tops and tails and grace notes in correspondence and speeches. Google translation helps. Rows over dual language signage are winning fewer and fewer brownie points these days. Names in uncorrupted Irish are definitely chic. Liberal unionists and ” others” ( sic) are not entirely immune. While to a monoglot the spelling with its riot of letters and flying accents is no guide to pronunciation, it adds a welcome touch of exclusivity for the ever so slightly initiated. Call it an identity signifier if you like, but not necessarily for hard politics. Willing recognition tends to soften the hard edges that indeed exist. Stout unionists champion townland and other local names quite as much as nationalists. They are often eager to know what the names describe.
The key objection is to “weaponising” the language. But if the weapons can be decommissioned and replaced by deliverable demands , win: win might just be achievable, first by deconstructing the issues.
What is an Irish Language Act designed to achieve? Equality and parity of esteem? With what? Ulster Scots and the Orange tradition do not have the weight to create balance. English is universal and has been Irish culture’s first language of choice for two centuries. No one today suggests promoting equal usage between English and Irish; the evidence everywhere is overwhelmingly against it.
I’ve been discussing the issue with Diarmait Mac Giolla Chriost, an Irishman who is professor of politics at Cardiff University and an expert on language law and policy. He actually speaks Welsh as well as Irish.
On Harold Macmillan’s principle that “calm reflection disentangles every knot” we might consider the following, informed by his knowledge and experience.
Language rights, defined by primary legislation and protected by the availability of court remedy, are inherently inflexible instruments. Within a broad legal framework, negotiation is a better approach than the inherently divisive strategy of quarrelling over rights.
Given the local demography of the Irish language in NI, only a very narrow suite of Irish language rights is justified, as is the case with the Irish language in the Republic and even more so for Scots Gaelic. This would comprise the right to use Irish in speeches to the Assembly, with translation facilities being available, and in the higher courts. For the courts, the consent of the judiciary is required. Proposals would include the right of a member of public to receive a reply in Irish in response to a communication in Irish with a public body.
For any changes,widespread consultation on the agenda agreed among the principle stakeholders has to be mandatory. Experiments could be held before full implementation. This approach partly removes it from political contention. In this and in so many other topics, a solution would require civil society – academe and other professions including the voluntary sector – to point out the potential gains in the quality of political relationships. They have held back for far too long.
What changes would be entailed in the Assembly?
At present Irish can be spoken in the Assembly but the speaker must self-translate and, do so within her or his allotted speaking time. This practice is unique and peculiar to Stormont. It imposes an arguably unfair constraint on the democratic rights of those members who wish to use Irish. Irish speaking with simultaneous translation into English would be limited to plenary sessions only. In practice the demand even here might be limited. MLAs and in particular ministers might well read out a statement in Irish crafted I would guess in most cases by someone else. Very few if any have enough Irish to think quickly on their feet in debate. (Mairtin O Muilleoir being a rare exception?)
The Act would set out the extent of the use of Irish and the standards of proficiency required in the public sector. It would also set conditions for any expansion based on usage in private life.
Given the status of Welsh in Wales, Scots Gaelic in Scotland, and Irish in the Republic, conferring official status on the Irish language in NI via primary legislation is justifiable. The enactment of this modest proposal would remove a running sore from politics and powerfully improve political relationships. From the general experience of signage I suggest it would rapidly become the new normal. The Act would set standards of general respect that would discourage interference over the use of Irish on manhole covers and the like, while admitting that Gregory Campbell will always have his little joke.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London