As Summer rolls on and disputes rumble regarding the possibility (or not) of the enactment of an Irish Language Act – or a Languages Act – or a Culture(s) Act, we seem to be stuck in a labyrinth of ever decreasing circles or some Byzantine entrapment from which there is no escape.
As Christy Moore once sang: For all of our languages we can’t communicate.
As an Irish speaker I’m conflicted about Ulster Scots. It’s clearly a dialect of English but it has been recognised as a language for the purposes of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. Whereas there’s a very vibrant Irish language community and movement in Northern Ireland, Ulster Scots is spoken by people who don’t even realise they’re speaking it. As far as I know, there is no demand similar to that in the Irish language speaking community for schools, newspapers, radio stations and the like in Ulster Scots. The Ulster Scots Agency, which is the ‘leath bhadóir/fellow agency’ to Foras na Gaeilge in the cross border Languages Body, has a website whose home page is entirely in English (apart from the name of the agency, in tiny print, under the name of the agency in English). It doesn’t as Foras na Gaeilge does, for instance, offer a mirror site in its own language. This is to say that the language – or dialect – known as Ulster Scots is not its main concern.
Fair enough. In the past when Ulster Scots translations have been offered in various fora or media – for example on newspaper advertisements – they have at times invited adverse comment and ridicule from a sceptical public unused to anything in a language other than English. I have laughed along with some of this. Some of it is ridiculous and reflects badly on Ulster Scots – some of the laughter and ridicule reflects badly on myself as a language activists getting caught in the trap often set for monoglot English speakers.
I don’t like this business of claiming Irish is ‘our’ language and Ulster Scots is ‘their’ language. Though I’m a Munster man in exile in Belfast, I see Ulster Scots as part of my heritage, an unexplored part of my backstory perhaps. If I wanted to learn more about it, it might be a help if there were classes to go and learn it or about it.
Such classes don’t exist, however, or at least not on the same scale as the mass availability of Irish classes. The availability of Irish classes in then north is only barely outstripped by the proliferation of fast food outlets. While there are Irish classes in the south, they aren’t as readily accessible in local community centres and the like as they are in the north.
There might have been more availability of Ulster Scots classes in the north had the NI Executive not shot down the Ulster Scots and Irish language strategies which had been presented to them by then DCAL minister Carál Ní Chuilinn in 2015. My understanding is the DUP scuppered the Ulster Scots strategy lest they might have to support an Irish language strategy. I’m open to other interpretations being argued for.
Now we seem to be in a bind. The DUP which have opposed an Irish Language Act all along have now come up with a proposal for a Culture Act which would, it seems, give some semblance of recognition to both Irish and Ulster Scots and also to Orange culture. Sinn Féin and the SDLP and both Pobal and Conradh na Gaeilge want a stand alone Irish Language Act. Given this was promised in 2006 by the British Government in a side deal which was part of the St Andrews’ Agreement negotiations, and don’t give me the guff that the DUP didn’t agree or know or weren’t party to it, their objections didn’t get in the way of them signing up power-sharing, they have solid ground on insisting that part of the deal be delivered upon.
There is a way around this, however, and there’s a precedent for it. The afore mentioned European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages is a model which can be used. Already Irish is recognised under Part 3 of this charter, which sets out fairly specific protections and provisions which should be made for Irish with respect to the courts, education, public sphere, the media and other sectors. Ulster Scots is recognised under Part 2 of the charter, which allows more general protections and provisions. This differentiated recognition allows for the fact that Irish and Ulster Scots, while both minority languages, are at different stages of development and therefore need different levels of protection and provision.
There’s a lot of suspicion on all sides of the language(s) debate. I have seen articles for example in the Newsletter saying that any support to Ulster Scots is not worth yielding an inch to the Irish language. And certainly not to yield an Irish Language Act. I have heard Unionists decry the potential ‘cost’ of an Irish Language Act being the ruination of Northern Ireland and shortly afterwards say if there’s going to be an Irish Language Act there should be equal legislation for Ulster Scots. My suspicion is that Ulster Scots is being used as a blocking tactic in a game of political football about the languages. I have been involved in arguments with people/accounts on social media who have wrongly claimed that bilingual road signage (ie Irish and English) leads to an increase in the risk of road accidents when that is not what’s been proven (according to a study, there is a potential danger not from bilingual signage but from signs with more than two lines) The next minute the very same people have said that Ulster Scots should be included – so as to make a two line sign a three line sign and therefore unacceptable for safety purposes in the context of the above linked report
I contend we shouldn’t allow the Ulster Scots issue delay the implementation of legislation which would recognise and support Irish in NI. A single piece of legislation could contain many different parts which would provide for Irish, Ulster Scots, Orange culture and whatever you’re having yourself, respectively and separately. It would only make a ‘laughing stock’ of the legislation if we didn’t take the legislation seriously. Parties and organisations who claim to want a United Ireland need to take this on board seriously as part of the ‘new approach’ needed to unlock ‘unionist opposition to a new Ireland’.
I don’t know what a new/united/agreed Ireland might look like. I do know it won’t happen without compromises on all sides.
The other side of that argument, which I have written about here at length and frequently in the past, is that Unionists should be eager to guarantee equality for Irish in NI, similar to the provision which is made in Scotland and Wales respectively. Unionists should not be careless in allowing their prejudices to put Irish speakers in NI on a lower footing than Gaidhlig speakers in Scotland or Welsh speakers in Wales. They should be strong advocates of minority language equality in all parts of the UK, that is if they hold their Union dearer than their prejudices. After all, trying to look on the situation as a unionist might, while some nationalists might look on an Irish Language Act as a stepping stone to reunification, unionists could view it is as a bulwark against nationalists becoming more trenchant and determined in our pursuit of a United Ireland? If you add an ILA to the NHS, plus an eventual reversal on Brexit, it’s more challenging to make a convincing case for a United Ireland. It’s not that I wouldn’t be making it – but it’s quite plain to see that the current situation is not making the case for the Union to be maintained.
There is also the issue that legislation providing for and protecting the Irish language in the north would give a boost to the Irish language at a time when it’s in a precarious state in other parts of Ireland. Some people argue, in order to discount the possibility of language protection in the north, that language legislation in the south hasn’t helped. My contention is that Irish language legislation overly focused on bureaucracy and duplication hasn’t worked in the south when what’s needed more is hands on protection and provision for a language on the same basis you would protect an endangered eco system. They’ve used old figures to claim the Irish language is dying when there are plenty of signs to the contrary which show its growth in urban areas. They say a minority of people in NI speak it and while that’s true, a minority do speak it in NI, it’s not as small a minority as they would like to portray and the size of a minority (as opposed to its existence) has never been a good reason to deny protection to that minority.
And, clearly, the Irish language does need protection in Northern Ireland. It needs protection from ministers who would make arbitrary decisions to deny provision for Irish speakers based on their own prejudices or party interests. I am thinking here as much of the Líofa decision by DUP Minister Paul Givan as I am of that by Sinn Féin’s Education Ministers who sought to deny bus transport to and from North Belfast and other locations to pupils of Coláiste Feirste.
Sometimes at the back of my mind, I think we could resolve the impasse with some simple rebranding. What if we were to call it the Ulster Gaelic Act instead of the Irish Language Act or rebrand Ulster Scots as Irish Scots? Would that melt away some of the blockages we’re currently enduring. Would some who oppose the Irish Language Act content themselves that an Irish Language Act of any description cannot enforce anybody in the north to learn the language any more than it did in the south – and the hollowing out of Ireland’s hybrid Irish-British Mid Atlantic identity has not taken fire in the south and is unlikely to happen here in the north either. Leastways not as long as we can spend days hotly debating the rights and wrongs about Dr Who’s gender change or concerning ourselves more than is healthily obsessive with the progress or decline of English/Scottish premiership soccer firms/clubs.
With all due respect to those on the front lines of this political (dis)engagement, it’s time to make progress on this issue. Digging deeper trenches is getting us nowhere.