The Irish Language Act can better NI society, cynicism will destroy it

Two years ago the Cultúrlann hosted a group of Gaidhlig psalm singers from Lewis.  The renditions by the singers from the Bach Presbyterian Church of age old hymns in Gaidhlig was a reminder of our common Gaelic culture, a shared heritage which could not be sundered by petty religious spite.

Spite seems to be order of the day here, however, as we are held hostage once again to the whims of a backward looking DUP in an electoral process in which the zero sum game seems to be the only game in town.

Following on from the dehumanising remarks made by Arlene Foster in relation to what she termed Sinn Féin demands for an Irish Language Act when she described those seeking such legislation as ‘crocodiles’ who would keep coming back for more, we have this Irish News column from Newton Emerson in which he deploys his caustic cynicism to lethal effect.

Long before Sinn Féin demanded an Irish Language Act, Irish speakers in the north, dismayed by the lack of follow through on Good Friday Agreement commitments  by the Executive and the Governments since the historic accord in 1998 to 2006, started demanding the legislation. We were not following an agenda laid down by Sinn Féin but the lead given by language activists in Wales, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, where language protection legislation had been enacted to varying effect.

If Arlene had a mind to, all she need have done was cast her mind back to when she agreed a Programme for Government with Sinn Féin just before the entire RHI debacle escalated.  That PfG, lofty in all its ideals,  didn’t include any specific commitment with relation to the Irish Language Act.  The previous PfG, for the 2011-16 period, had included words wrt the Irish language but it had disappeared for whatever reason in the latest publication.   The explanation that this was an outcomes related PfG didn’t clarify the matter for me or comfort me in any way that this commitment would be delivered in any shape or form.

Now it seems the prospect of an Irish Language Act is centre stage in this campaign and if it hadn’t been ‘weaponised’ up to now, Arlene certainly managed that with her reference to ‘crocodiles’,  an utterance which has fathered many entertaining memes and cartoons in the online world, and her utterance of the ‘n [for never]’ word.   Now Sinn Féin knows what the trigger will be for there to be no return to Stormont.

If we unpick the logic of Newton’s article, it would seem that his basic position is that he doesn’t see the need for an Irish Language Act either and his advice to Arlene is based on the premise that if she doesn’t want one, all she need do is give the proposal a fair wind till now and then unpick it on cost/detail grounds later.  After all, according to Newton, republicans don’t really want it either.

Irish speakers do want an Irish Language Act.  The full and wholehearted delivery of the commitments contained in the Good Friday Agreement have been put on the long finger far too long now.   This is unfinished business.   It’s not that we don’t care about people on hospital trollies or too large class room sizes or roads which are beginning to show signs of wear and tear or the environment or countless other causes, we do.  That person on the hospital trolley could be an Irish speaker as much as nine other members of society.    And sure, we can also speak English,  but the very basic premise is that we want to make this society a better society in which to live.  Adding legislative recognition and protection for Irish, a language indigenous to Ireland, helps in that process, I believe.  At the very outset it helps us better understand the community in which we live, a community of placenames whose names in English make absolutely no sense without knowledge of Irish.    According to studies, bilingualism has many health benefits, including staving off dementia.   Irish, as an indigenous language, is the most logical language to learn.  You can do it on your doorstep, you don’t have to travel the world to hear it being spoken in its native indigenous context.

It isn’t about securing ‘juicy jobs for Gaeilgeoirí’ either, not that that is necessarily a bad thing.   It may result in the creation of positions in which knowledge of Irish would be an advantage but if Newton cares to look south of the border, knowledge of Irish is not an advantage for those seeking positions in the public service.  Indeed, the reverse could be said to be true!    What is a better, less cynical way of looking at it, is that it would be no burden on any public service if more qualified people with more skills, including Irish language skills, would be employed. Who could be against that?

There could also be another benefit from this debate. We differ on what that legislation might contain but we’re prepared to have a meaningful discussion on the matter.  While I or any self respecting Irish speaker don’t see an equivalence between Irish and Ulster Scots or, for that matter, the marching bands and flag waving culture, I see Irish language issues firmly in the arts, community, education and broadcasting context, the political reality is that they’re all bundled together.    Could some fresh thinking unencumbered by the accumulated cynicism of the type displayed by Newton or the inhumanity exhibited by Arlene  (and the dedication to fake news of Nelson) and their colleagues in the DUP or the opportunism so obvious in some statements and stunts from some in Sinn Féin, could it unlock a new way of dealing with issues surrounding culture and language which could be of benefit to all? Or do we really want to be stuck on the same roundabout indefinitely into the future?

I don’t want to be politically partisan about this but I have been heartened by the decision of Naomi Long to include an Irish language poster in her election campaign.  I also had a brief exchange on twitter with Doug Beattie, a UUP MLA and candidate and a former member of the British Armed Forces, about ‘Faugh a Ballagh’, the motto for the Royal Irish Regiment.   That was also encouraging. There are many genuine people in Sinn Féin and the SDLP who have always supported the Irish language.  Sometimes that’s forgotten as we seek support from new non traditional sources.  It shouldn’t be.    The People Before Profit candidates in West Belfast have erected giant billboards proclaiming ‘Tapaigh an Deis’ or, in English, Seize the Opportunity!     Maybe that’s a good point to sign off on….