Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin is an Irish Language Activist and is writing this in a personal capacity
On the 20th of May thousands will make their way to Belfast to support the increasing calls for legislative protection for the Irish language, in the form of an Irish language act. Those attending, like the Irish language community itself, come from different backgrounds and have different views on many important issues, but on the issue of the role of the state regarding the Irish language, there is broad agreement.
Having been among the groups and individuals from the Irish speaking community who met with Arlene Foster and the DUP some weeks ago, there was genuine hope that after years of campaigning and lobbying that we were on the verge of significant progress. That hope still exists and is strengthened by the fact that for the first time we have a majority of MLA’s who now support an Irish Language Act. There is disappointment and anger however at more recent attempts by the DUP to divide the community by dismissing those seeking legislation as ‘political activists’. Notwithstanding the obvious fact that anyone advocating for political or legislative change is by their very nature ‘political’, it once again demonstrates a very narrow and derogatory view on the genuine needs of the overwhelming majority in the Irish language community and the contrived discourse around the politicisation of the language.
Those who criticize the politicisation of the language display little or no historical understanding. The language has constituted a political issue for centuries as the chief cultural target in the conquest and colonisation of Ireland. Despite this, commendable and effective efforts were made to preserve our native language and culture, by people from all traditions and backgrounds. This undoubtedly saved the language from extinction which today is flourishing in many communities across the north. Any minority community engaged in a struggle for rights and recognition are quite consciously involved in ‘political activism’. This doesn’t diminish or undermine them or their campaign. As many language communities across Europe and throughout the world will testify, it is the denial and disavowal of rights which is controversial and ‘political’ and not the assertion of those rights. The right and opportunity to ‘learn and use’ your native language, according to internationally acclaimed language expert Fernand de Varennes, ‘flows from a fundamental right and cannot to be considered as a special concession or privileged treatment’.
So why do we need an Act? I could quote previous commitments, cite international examples, examine the history and importance of the language as a central part of our cultural heritage which has shaped our place names, surnames and even how we speak English. However, the most simple and compelling reason to implement an act is that an Irish Language community exists in the North. We are a community that speak Irish, that fully support the development of adequate resources for Irish, that learn about the world through Irish, and we are a community that has underwent monumental growth in the last few years (it is estimated that the 6,000 people who use the Irish medium education system in the North will double in the next 7 years).
At present, this community has no legal protection in the same way as Welsh speakers in Wales do, for example. Therefore, the state has the power to ignore the Irish Language Community or to oppress it, and no legal mechanism exists to address this. The case of former Department for Communities Minister Paul Givan axing the Líofa Gaeltacht Bursaries recently highlighted this, and was a further example of a continuous, long-term pattern of statutory hostility and marginalisation. Painful experience has shown us time and again that we can put no faith or trust in the good-will officials and many of our elected politicians to do the right thing for the language. We need a legislative framework that places clear, unambiguous responsibilities on all government departments and officials while removing any scope for petty political prejudices driving decision making. As the Justice Maguire recently noted in the Conradh na Gaeilge judicial Review victory at Belfast’s High Court, ‘political allegiance cannot be an excuse for breaking the law’.
A Language Act is only one ‘pillar’ in the overall design of language revitalisation. The Language Protocols launched in Donostia last year and endorsed by over 200 language NGO’s across Europe provide a glimpse of the ongoing struggles by minority language communities to survive in the face of what has been described by Philipson as ‘Linguistic Imperialism’ or ‘Linguicism’.
According to Michael Krauss’s (UN) estimates, 90% of the world’s languages will be extinct by the end of this century. When we have strong legislative measures in place to protect the environment and wildlife can we not do the same for the greatest treasure of human cultural heritage? The protocols have been designed and developed in consultation with minoritised language communities as they understand what being on the receiving end of language rights violations feels like while also having an acutely practical appreciation for the specific measures required in order to properly defend these same rights.
On the 20th of May those who have experienced marginalisation and discrimination for nothing more than wanting to live their lives through Irish will take to the streets demanding long overdue change. Among them will be parents and pensioners, children and young people, employed and unemployed, and people with a broad range of opinions and views on many different issues – but in the case of rights and protection for the Irish language, they are of one voice: it’s time for the state to act. If you think this is a cause worth fighting for and that all of our of citizens are entitled to respect, recognition and rights, then please join us this Saturday as we march from the Gaeltacht Quarter to Belfast’s city hall!