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.