I attended a meeting in Belfast on Monday night, no ordinary gathering either. It was a meeting called by Finance Minister and Sinn Féin candidate Mairtín Ó Muilleoir to facilitate a conversation between the Irish language community about the current political situation and the threat it poses and/or the opportunity it presents.
Irish language activists from throughout the six counties showed up at the Cultúrlann on the Falls Road for the event. It had been a long time since there had been a similar meeting and it was timely given recent events.
Recent events. Like Irish speakers being likened to reptiles by DUP leader Arlene Foster for daring to ask for the delivery on promises made in the St Andrews Agreement more than ten years ago. Like her crocodile tears in Saturday’s Irish News as she claimed to be all for everybody who wanted to speaking Irish – but persisting in the lie that she and her party objected due to ‘cost’ implications. The duplicity of that claim was laid bare during Nolan Live on Wednesday when John O’Dowd asked the DUP’s Peter Weir if his party’s main objection was the cost of an Irish Language Act, would he support a ‘reasonably priced’ ILA? A very definite “No” was the reflexive answer from the former Education Minister.
This formula of words we’ve heard from DUP representatives so often – that they’re not against people speaking or learning Irish if that is their genuine wish. Then, before a breath is drawn, we hear the reason why not – ‘the weaponising of the Irish language’ by some [not all] and the cost, so hideously over inflated by Nelson McCausland as to bear no relation to reality This formula of words seems to be strikingly similar to the defence they use when enforcing their anti same sex marriage diktats on NI society. ‘We don’t mind what you do in the privacy of your own home – well we do – but don’t expect us to allow you get married and claim legal protection for your relationship. It doesn’t conform, you see, with what’s written in the Bible which was written by God or persons unknown, depending on your point of view.
Back to Monday’s meeting and the attendance was very receptive to the discussion being proposed by SF. It was a noble attempt to clear the air as there have been several clashes between Irish language activists and the party over the years since power-sharing with the DUP commenced – and previously.
Back in 2007/8, it had been the axing of the Irish Language Broadcast Fund by then Culture Minister Edwin Poots – where had the defenders of Irish been when that decision was discussed around the Executive table. Since then there have been several other clashes, the most notable being the court case brought by the governing body of Coláiste Feirste against then Education Minister, Caitriona Ruane of SF, seeking the right to free travel for students of the college travelling from across Belfast and as far as Downpatrick. Counsel in that case was famously advised by Judge Seamus Treacy to return to the Minister to seek instruction having raised eyebrows in the court when describing the Good Friday Agreement as an ‘aspirational document’.
A verdict in favour of the school was followed by a long frustrating delay and protests which involved students and parents walking from north Belfast to the school. That led to John O’Dowd finding the £70,000 necessary to fund buses for a two year pilot scheme which would transport the students from North Belfast across the Shankill to Coláiste Feirste in Beechmount. It will be interesting to see if this funding is renewed this coming September whoever may be administering the Education brief.
These and other clashes were mentioned in the lively and enlightening exchanges which took place – there was a noticeable absence of heat in the atmosphere. In contrast there was a strong sense of empathy as we were told of incidents when a screeching First Minister had vetoed any additional funds for the cross border bodies or attempts being made to halt the remarkable progress being made by Gaelcholáiste Dhoire, Northern Ireland’s second Irish medium secondary school. For even the most cynical observer – and I count myself as being on that spectrum at least – could not come away from the meeting without thinking that it had been a battle a day to make any progress on Irish language issues while sharing power with the DUP.
This feeling was captured by one contributor who came to the podium to talk of the feeling he had when he returned home on Saturday night after Slaughtneil’s triumph in Saturday’s All Ireland club semi-final. He gave a ‘fist thump’ when he saw a sign on a pole saying ‘You are now entering Free Slaughtneil’. He told the assembly that he gave the same fist thump when he heard the news that Sinn Féin would not support the continuation of power-sharing with the DUP back in January.
So, what have the DUP done? Be it through design or incompetence or sheer folly, they have facilitated a new unity of purpose between Sinn Féin and Irish language activists, Sinn Féin candidates will get more Irish language votes this time around, no question. At the meeting I attended there was no appetite for a quick return to Stormont – it may take between six months and a year – or much longer – of British Direct Misrule to force a new attitude. In the meantime there may be as part of an interim deal some progress on issues such as the Irish Language Strategy and Same Sex Marriage. There may also be, as I proposed, a more rigorous and committed delivery on commitments the British Government have already signed up to under Part 3 of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. These commitments include a guarantee of support for Irish language newspaper in Northern Ireland. When the Charter was signed, Lá was being published daily Monday to Friday. The newspaper, which I edited between 2005 and early 2008, folded at the end of 2008 through lack of support. Since then the British Government has returned its report on the implementation of the Charter with the section on Irish in Northern Ireland unfilled and been criticised by the Council of Europe for these omissions.
I would neither overestimate nor underestimate the influence of Irish speakers on the mindset of Sinn Féin in this election. It’s clear SF is targeting Irish speakers with its focus on an Irish Language Act but this is part of a wider strategy which places Sinn Féin at the vanguard of ‘progressive politics’ in the north – and puts the DUP on the back foot painting itself into a rapidly decreasing corner. Apparently Sinn Féin have refused to say if the implementation of an Irish Language Act is a red line issue for them, despite pressure from Irish language organisations such as Conradh na Gaeilge. The Gaelic League can hardly be blamed for seeing this latest turn of events as the best ever opportunity of getting the Irish Language Act into the statute books.
My own reading of the situation is that it would take specific and explicit commitments re progress on the Irish Language and same sex marriage, on top of a clear verdict from the proposed RHI enquiry, to see a return to serious talks towards a return of meaningful power-sharing between Sinn Féin and the DUP.
And over all of this lurks the grim shadow of Brexit, the most sinister threat to the Good Friday Agreement and all that was built on its foundations.