Paul Givan’s withdrawal of funding for the Líofa Irish language bursary scheme in January 2017 is not the first time that a government minister has pulled funding of language organisations.
Some of the background to the withdrawal of government funding to Irish language organisation Glór na nGael back in August 1990 can now be seen in newly released papers under the 30/20 Year Rule. And the papers include a plea from Protestant language learners who questioned the “seemingly arbitrary decision”.
Glór na nGael was established in 1961. A west Belfast committee of Glór na nGael was formed as an umbrella group for Irish language organisations to coordinate entry into the competition in 1982, and from that year, west Belfast began to win prizes, including the overall trophy in 1986, 1990 and 1996. In the book Nationalists and the Irish Language in Northern Ireland: Competing Perspectives, Camille O’Reilly discusses how “it held Irish language classes in its own premises as well as ‘neutral’ venues like the Ulster People’s College, designed to attract both Protestants and Catholics”.
Without warning on 25 August 1990, the Northern Ireland Office wrote to the west Belfast Glór na nGael to withdraw their funding under the ACE scheme. “No explanation was offered in the brief letter, but reference was made to a 1985 statement made by the then Secretary of State Douglas Hurd, in which he said that funds would not be made available to groups when that funding would ‘have the effect of improving the standing and furthering the aims of a paramilitary organization, whether directly or indirectly’”.
It’s no surprise that O’Reilly describes the west Belfast Gaeilgeoirí as interpreting the withdrawal of funding as “an attack on the Irish language and on west Belfast as a whole”. She notes that the government were instead funding the “newly established ULTACH Trust” who wrote to the Secretary of State Peter Brooke asking him to reconsider the Glór na nGael funding decision.
One letter was written in on behalf “of the Protestants who have been taking part in Irish language courses at the Ulster People’s College, Adelaide Park, Belfast”.
We are writing to you to question the seemingly arbitrary decision announced last week to withdraw the funds from ACE [Action for Community Employment] which support Glór na nGael.
The concerned language learners explained that they pursued Irish courses to:
- enjoy the language and increase our understanding of another tradition,
- cure bigotry, starting with ourselves,
- share in the rich culture available to everyone in both parts of Ireland,
- play a small part in bringing a solution to our present troubles.
They protested that their “excellent” tutor would have his “livelihood and present contribution to the language withdrawn” and noted that Glór na nGael staff were “voluntarily honouring their responsibilities by continuing to teach unpaid”.
O’Reilly’s book notes that “the only evidence that could be mustered in support of the government’s allegations against Glór na nGael came after funding had already been withdrawn” when “a former ACE worker […] who was once on their committee was later arrested and charged with paramilitary-related offences”. (Though he wasn’t on the committee when funding was withdrawn nor when he was arrested.)
Like many of the public records released, the full story is spread across many different files, some already released, and others yet to be made public. The CENT/1/18/34A file of public correspondence does not contain the policy papers relating to the decision.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.