Who’s afraid of an Irish Language Act?

The publication of a report by a committee of Council of Europe experts into the failure by the Stormont Executive is the main story on the BBC NI News bulletins and website this morning.   Coming on the heels of a ‘brutal’ election campaign during which the Irish language was propelled into the centre of the political debate by the DUP leader Arlene Foster with her infamous ‘crocodile’ gaffe, perhaps it’s no surprise.

The ‘crocodile’ remarks, coming on the heels of Communities Minister Paul Givan’s cut of the Líofa bursary in the mouth of Christmas, were the single greatest galvanising factor in getting people to vote for nationalist parties, Sinn Féin, in particular. at the recent election.

Throughout the campaign we had outbursts from the DUP’s Nelson McCausland to pour cold water on demands for an Irish Language Act.   He concocted from previously discredited figures a £2billion bill for an Irish Language Act (£100m per year for 20 years) which he claimed would far outweigh the cost of the RHI debacle.    While his sensational ‘alternative fact’ figures got some airplay from broadcasters who should have done more rigorous research on the issue, it emerged closer to the election that what Sinn Féin were actually looking for were in terms of an Irish Language Act would not amount to anything like Nelson’s sums.    Mairtín Ó Muilleoir produced figures closer to £5m per year for a putative act, based on the Scottish model. 

As an Irish Language Act is now firmly ensconced on the political agenda, it appears more likely than ever that it will happen if devolution is to return.    

The question remains for the DUP why they are so afraid of an Irish Language Act?  Would the DUP under Peter Robinson or Ian Paisley have been afraid of an Irish Language Act or other concessions to the language if it meant that the Union they so revere with the UK would not have been threatened by those of us in NI who hold our Irish identity dear?

In his response to the publication of the Council of Europe report this morning, Nelson McCausland makes this extraordinary claim:

“This report covers both Ulster Scots and Irish language but a lot of the focus as been on one part of the report and the other part has been almost completely ignored,” he said.

“We have a number of different political and cultural perspectives. If Northern Ireland is to work, all of them need to be respected and unfortunately, I would suggest, people in the unionist community feel they are being treated as second class citizens”.

In his haste to portray unionists as second class citizens, Nelson forgets that he is already endorsing second class citizenship of the Union for Irish speakers.  While the Gaidhlig speakers of Scotland and the Welsh speakers of Wales enjoy legislative protection for their languages, the Irish speakers of Northern Ireland are left without similar protection where the threat of capricious political discrimination is very real.  This is evidenced by the analysis of the Irish News of the decisions of former Education Minister Peter Weir who refused six out of seven applications from Irish Medium schools for support, the last one of these refusals was signed on his last day as Minister!

Nelson should take heed also.   While he mentions in passing the Ulster Scots language/dialect, he appears to suggest that those in the unionist community are being treated as ‘second class citizens’ because the same focus is not being put on Ulster Scots.   That is a very proprietary attitude to exhibit towards Ulster Scots, as if it were only a ‘unionist’ language.   Those supporting hurling in the Glens of Antrim might have a different opinion on that matter.  It also ignores blithely the resurgence of Unionist interest in the Irish language as there are classes in many unionist areas now, thanks to the work of the Ultach Trust and Linda Ervine.

Who’s afraid of the Irish Language?   It appears to me that it’s the likes of Nelson McCausland and others within the DUP and this fear of the Irish language and the ‘other’ is to the detriment of the Union they profess to cherish.   True enough they can drag up quotes from ancient Sinn Féin texts equating every word of Irish to a bullet in the freedom struggle or point to ill thought out and frankly embarrassing remarks by the departed SF leader Gerry Adams regarding ‘trojan horses’ and equality.    But to what avail?    They have made agreements  and entered government with Sinn Féin since the ‘bullet’ remarks and when Gerry Adams made his ‘trojan’ gaffe, they huffed and they puffed but didn’t bring the house down.

The Irish language community isn’t the only sector of society which Nelson and co have estranged, they’ve managed to do it with the LGBT community and other minorities also.   The party’s Brexit strategy, so pithily enunciated by Nelson who infamously said on Nolan Live that he didn’t care about the consequences as long as the UK was out of Europe.  Nelson and his like in the DUP are perfectly content to enforce second class citizenship on these above mentioned minorities (and the anti Brexit majority), a growing number of whom are unionist in their outlook.

While I was studying history a long time ago I was taught about the British Government tactic of Killing Home Rule With Kindness which, at the very least, postponed for a generation the fateful day when the Act of Union would be repealed to allow Ireland have its own devolved parliament. A hundred years on and unionists could well take on board that lesson and apply it to the increasing demands for a border poll.   They could realise that instead of ‘harnessing the fear’ engendered by last Thursday’s poll result they could embark on a new hopeful direction in which the appeal of the Union for all could be emphasised rather than this latest effort to circle wagons against the advancing hordes.

The sooner that Arlene and Nelson realise that more than

both the unionist parties and the unionist people have a role to play 

the better for Nelson and for us all.  I’m no unionist but I feel strongly that unionists are being misled by their leaders and if they follow them down this latest cul de sac, they will end up losing everything they hold dear.

EXTRA:  During his many appearances on the media, Nelson (and other DUP) representatives have trumpeted about how they have funded the Irish language to the tune of £171m (according to figures for five years up to 2016).  However this includes at least £88m for Irish medium education which would have to be spent anyhow unless Nelson doesn’t a cohort of the population to be educated.  Of course, if there wasn’t a statutory protection for Irish Medium Education, it’s unlikely that any DUP minister would countenance it.    Which kind of makes the case for statutory protection for the Irish language.

The positive society enhancing aspects of the Irish language and its potential to transform NI are emphasised in this positive video from Nós and Coláiste Feirste.