Unionists should welcome Irish Language Act with open arms

As I read the latest contributions regarding the Irish language from UUP leader Robin Swann and its echo in the Newsletter’s Morning View, it seems to me that they have tied themselves in a knot about Acht na Gaeilge.   A Gordian knot is a phrase that occurs to me.  It seems impossible to loosen but is easily unravelled with the judicious use of logic and good sense.

Unionists like Robin Swann, Jim Allister and the writer of the Belfast Newsletter editorials seem to be entangled in knots by Sinn Féin’s espousal of the Irish Language Act.  The reality is Sinn Féin was part of an Executive which last year proposed a five year programme for Government which didn’t specifically or at all mention an Irish Language Act as a likely outcome of their powersharing arrangement with Sinn Féin.   

That omission didn’t happen by accident, it seems to me. After all the campaign for Acht na Gaeilge has been ongoing for years due to the unthanked efforts of Pobal and the more recent participation by Conradh na Gaeilge.   Given that as recently as 2015 Caral Ní Chuilinn, during her tenure as Culture Minister, had put out a consultation document on an Irish language strategy, it was unusual that it did not feature in the Programme for Government.   

One of the reasons for this was undoubtedly the DUP resistance to an Irish Language Act, a resistance which was articulated, if that’s the word, by the likes of Gregory Campbell and occasional outbursts by others.   

Here’s another reason – or this is my theory at least –  why Sinn Féin were so cool on an Irish Language Act in the Programme for Government  At their heart of hearts, SF puts the achievement of a United Ireland at the top of their agenda. No surprise there. For this ‘certain day’ to be realised, it depends on a majority of people living in NI being sufficiently unhappy with life in the north to vote against the continuation of the Union and in favour of a United Ireland.    Can the vote for a United Ireland be maximised if a not insignificant minority – say Irish language speakers – are happy enough with their lot in NI with language legislation on a par with that in Scotland or Wales?  Would you take a chance on it, if you were one of SF’s number crunchers?   Neither would I – it’s not that all Irish speakers would vote against a United Ireland, it’s more why would you risk anybody voting against it.

So securing an Irish Language Act should be seen by unionists as a sign that Sinn Féin, for all their talk of border polls and unity within five years, are signing up to Stormont powersharing for at least the medium term.  The party is preparing its base for a mid to long term run in to a successful border poll.  As a person who wants reunification to happen on this island, I see this process ideally as a journey rather than a single event, a journey in which people are brought on board rather than left behind and  in which they have a contribution to make.  It definitely beats British Direct Misrule which is what some seem to be preparing the ground for.

The unionist position is far from logical in the first place.  If the likes of the UUP had any sense they would be supporting wholeheartedly an Irish Language Act as it would push further down the road the likeliehood of a United Ireland.   It would mean that a significant and vociferous section of the nationalist community would not be able to complain that Irish speakers in Northern Ireland were being treated less favourably than Welsh speakers in Wales or Scottish Gaidhlig speakers in Scotland, that unionists were advocates for an unequal Union.

Instead Robin, Jim and their cheerleaders in the Belfast Newsletter have become recruiting officers for Sinn Féin and are adding to the radicalisation of a growing youthful population who see the republican party as the strongest vehicle for the radical change they require to make Northern Ireland a place they can call home.   It’s almost 20 years since David Trimble, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, admitted that the North had been a ‘cold house’ for Catholics.   The Irish speakers of 21st century Northern Ireland aren’t going to put up with living in a cold house. 

The Irish language is becoming an increasingly important issue across the community as now all parties, except the unionist parties, recognise the case for advancing linguistic equality along with other aspects of the rights agenda, the rights of same sex couples to get married in Northern Ireland on the same basis same sex couples can get married in Scotland, England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland.   Unionist parties may use the ‘No Irish here’ battle cry to try and harnass electoral and political support but they will find that this slogan is falling and ever deafer ears and that they are becoming increasingly isolated.    They will find too that their continued obstinacy is bringing closer the endgame which they are trying to avoid, a border poll which, I confidently predict, unless there’s a transformation in unionist attitudes, will deliver an overwhelming pro Unity (rather than pro Union) result.

What is ironic if not laughable  is the way in which unionist politicians – like Sammy Wilson and Robin Swann – clutch at straws like their mistaken perception that the Irish language is ‘failing’ in the south and therefore that legislation in the north is the last thing it needs.    I don’t agree that the Irish language is failing in the south.  We know it’s a minority language – and we’re ok with that.   But it is a vibrant language.  What is happening is not that it’s dying but it’s evolving as the Republic becomes ever more urban based.   More Irish is now being spoken in Dublin, Cork and other urban centres than ever while Gaeltacht areas, ever marginalised geographically, are losing their young population to the cities.   A fraction of these people moving to the cities abandon Irish for sure but an ever increasing number embrace Irish through Gaelscoileanna, more social opportunities such as ‘pop up Gaeltachtaí’ and poetry ‘slams’ than they were able to in their home villages.   A number of these people are pencilling in to their future plans an intention to return to the Gaeltacht to raise families.    The challenge facing Gaeltachtaí is to maintain the Irish language so that these new young Irish speaking families see the Gaeltacht as a vibrant Irish speaking community to which to return. 

As an Irish speaker I would be loathe to take lectures on language revival from unionists like Sammy Wilson or Robin Swann whose antipathy towards the Irish language is so obvious and so based on misperceptions and misreadings of the current state of Irish culture.


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  • Tochais Siorai

    No, it’s about saying it’s everybody’s territory (nobody’s arguing for Irish only signage).

  • Tochais Siorai

    If some billionaire philanthropist decided in the morning to underwrite the cost of every penny of the ILA it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference to most of its opponents.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    There are good arguments for Irish language legislation of some sort. However, when you argue “it would mean that a significant and vociferous section of the nationalist community would not be able to complain …” you can stop right there. I don’t think the stopping of the SF complaint train is one of the things that might realistically result.

    The better arguments are that we value diversity in our Union and are stronger for it.

  • murdockp

    Why. The situation we find ourselves in is ridiculous. SF are demanding an act which even they don’t know what it is and they have no idea regarding cost.

    They are the party which bangs on about equality but nothing is tabled for the many ethnic groups who also live in northern Ireland.

    It may as well be the dothraki language act when on considers how few the people who will benefit from the act. My post was a satirical dig on a few levels.

    The ridiculousness of this act was shown in Newry last week when protesters gates outside the bank of Ireland protesting about the removal of Irish from the cash machine. They looked like fools when BOI conformed the machine in Newry never had an irish language option.

    The whole position on this act from all sides is a farce.

  • Trasna

    Don’t be silly, the Irish language belongs to the Irish people.

    FFS, who else could it belong to?

  • Oggins

    It belongs to who wants to speak it? I have English friends that speak Irish.

    Catch yourself on

  • Gavin Crowley

    I agree with everything you say but for one point.
    “Respect is earned”
    Why not “Respect can be lost”
    We should assume for the best until the worst is confirmed?

  • Aodh Morrison

    I can agree with that.

    Perhaps my ‘respect is earned’ can be interpreted as one party standing immobile, arms folded’ awaiting the actions of the other before they respond.

    Even the preliminaries to a possible handshake go better with a hint of of smile rather than an icy stare.

  • james

    “The ridiculousness of this act was shown in Newry last week when protesters gates outside the bank of Ireland protesting about the removal of Irish from the cash machine. They looked like fools when BOI conformed the machine in Newry never had an irish language option.”

    Wow! Stories like this do indicate that this is not so much about what people want as about what they are told they want by ne’er-do-wells who are simply inciting and exploiting the gullible.


  • NotNowJohnny

    Why do signposts in Irish antagonise you but the same place names being derived from Irish do not?

  • john millar

    “It’s not. The point I was making is tha there are costs incurred by both cultures, and there are inconveniences imposed by both cultures and there should be allowances made by both cultures. If one culture can be fully celebrated then so should the other. That’s equality, not “getting one over””

    Remove tax payer funding from all these “culture” let each “culture” fnd its celebrations

  • john millar

    “There is nothing preventing unionist bringing forward proposals for an USA. However it is worth noting that no unionist in the 94 year history of the state has done so. Not even during the 51 years when no nationalist party was required to consent to it.”

    I think your” prayers ” will be answered shortly

    There will be an ILA
    There will be a parallel USA -for “equality”
    The USA will require the establishment of Faculties of Scots at QUB and UU -for “equality”

    Since resources are limited these (particularly the “scots” bit will have to come from existing resources. Where ? –well under the old “equality” the existing resources for Irish will have to take a hit.

    Now sell that to the ILA lobby

  • john millar

    It’s going over old ground. Arlene Foster has stated emphatically there will be ‘no Irish Language act’. So in response, it seems, you expect nationalists to present something to Ms Foster that she can ostentatiously toss out the window.
    How about Foster saying something along the lines of ‘Right, Britain has signed up to an Irish Language Act, similar to language acts in Scotland and Wales. It was agreed to in the St Andrews Agreement, so let’s sit all down and thrash one out, folks… within reason’.
    That would be progress. That would be getting somewhere.

    way too sensible-makes it unlikely

  • Mary Russell

    That would be one solution there would still be “costs incurred” by both sides. We still have to pay for the policing and clean up, regardless of funding, .perhaps if the various traditions paid for any damage they caused or if funding was witheld to cover any cost to the taxpayer, then maybe they would be more responsible in how they behave.

  • john millar

    Could not agree more

  • NotNowJohnny

    Surely the allocation of resources is a matter for the finance minister at the time with the agreement of the Executive? Do you know of something in the legislative pipeline that would contradict that?

  • john millar

    “Surely the allocation of resources is a matter for the finance minister at the time with the agreement of the Executive? Do you know of something in the legislative pipeline that would contradict that?”

    Indeed no– grasping Gerry`s “equality” stick firmly the dupers will expect spending on Scots to match spending in Irish with a swift belt on the head of the appropriate Finance minister

    There is already millions spent on Irish —the Scots funds will have to come from somewhere. Watch that equality stick -it may well knock a few noughts of “Irish spending”

  • john millar

    “You must know that adding an Ulster Scots element to legislation will add to cost. I’m too polite to ask the same questions you were asking me wrt possible cushy numbers overseeing the implementation of an ILA.”
    Costs can be split between Irish and Ulster scots .
    Bring on more cushy numbers.