Grassroots Campaign for Irish Language Legislation transformed political discourse, but where are we now and how can we help deliver meaningful change?

Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin writes for Slugger about the upcoming talks and the Irish Language Act

On Wednesday our local political parties, this time the 5 ‘main parties’ as they are described in the media, will return to the table to try and flesh out a deal which would allow for the Executive to be formed and the MLA’s to take their seats in the Assembly once more. The issues in the ‘to be resolved’ box is much the same as it was this time last year, the only substantive difference is this time the seat occupied by the Secretary of State will no longer have James Brokenshire sitting in it but Karen Bradley. Whether or not an outside chair will be brought in and what ‘power’ they would have remains to be seen.

With every month that passed during 2017, whatever optimism existed that a quick deal could be reached dissipated and was replaced by a grudging acceptance that this was a crisis unlike that in late 2015 which led to the ‘Fresh Start Agreement’. Commentators and pundits alike talked of a ‘fundamental shift’ in politics, driven partly by macro political issues like Brexit and Coalitions in Westminster, alongside the re-emergence of protest and community-led campaigns on the streets. Undoubtedly, the biggest, most consistent and most vocal of these campaigns was that of an Dream Dearg for an Irish language Act. An issue which had spent the previous 3 years on the margins and was rapidly falling off the political richter scale was catapulted to the main political issue of 2017. Despite the more recent, retrospective analysis of politicians and commentators that are hostile to an Irish language Act, this issue has not been plucked from the sky as some kind of arbitrary ‘Sinn Féin Red Line’ to ensure no deal was made while simultaneously allowing them to save face with nationalist electorate. In fact, quite the opposite.

As stated on previously on this site, the campaign re-emerged in late 2016 in response to a lack of progress on rights for Irish speakers generally (as indicated by a draft programme for Government which airbrushed Irish out of existence) coupled with brazen and openly biased regressive decisions against the language; see Líofa grants, the renaming of boats and countless attacks on Irish medium schools as examples.

The attempts to dehumanise and delegitimize those activists, citizens and young people as merely ‘political activists’ as Arlene Foster described us in April 2017 or in more recent times the reduction of the organic community-led campaign, the biggest seen here for a long year, to Sinn Féin Red Line’ ignores the reality that those parties (SF, SDLP, All, GPNI, PBP – and a majority of MLA’s) calling for an Irish Language Act did so as a result of a powerful organic campaign. To ignore that reality inevitably makes resolution much more difficult.

The question of the Irish language Act has become the barometer which large swathes of society here are using to assess how sincere the DUP are about building sustainable and stable power sharing. Attempts to make those calling for change invisible behind a simple narrative of Sinn Féin Red Lines, won’t alter the fact that systematic change is required, nor make those campaigning for change disappear. The single biggest and compelling reason to implement an act is that a vibrant and diverse 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.

No amount of posturing or reductionist sound-bites will make us go away.

During the course of 2017, many reasons have been proffered by those still opposed to legislation, primarily but not exclusively the DUP, to justify that opposition. These have included but are not limited to; cost, erosion of British culture, clogged up courts and strangely (given its source is from non-Irish speakers) that there is no need for legislation and that the language is doing just fine without it. It is like a game of whack-a-mole, once one argument has been falsified, another pops up. Yet the success of the campaign, in broadening the parameters of debate around language rights and in particularly in attracting cross-party and widespread public support, has left many of these arguments simply untenable. There had been, at least from April 2017, a grudging acceptance from even amongst the most hard-line opponents to lrish within the DUP, that some form of ‘legislative provision’ has to be ceded should they wish to see power-sharing restored.

Suggestions of ‘Composite Acts’, while they might seem well-intentioned and even progressive, ignore the reality that such acts don’t work and rarely exist in international law. The Council of Europe acknowledged that it would be concerning and damaging for both Ulster Scots and Irish if there are further attempts to seek artificial parity between these two linguistic traditions where like is not being compared with like. The position of the international framework is clear that each are to be treated in accordance with their particular and quite distinct situation, and that measures for each should be tailored to their development and safeguarding.

Conradh na Gaeilge have published proposals for an Irish Language Act, as have others. The community has been consulted on legislation for Irish 3 times over the previous 11 years. Both the Council of Europe and the United Nations have consistently called for an independent Irish Language Act and for the first time since the foundation of the state, a majority of our elected MLA’s now support the communities call for a stand-alone Act. Both the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have committed their support to stand-alone legislation as per St Andrews. We are ready to go.

If legislation is required for Ulster Scots, and some prominent members of that community have dismissed this, let it be based on their specific needs and requirements and not as a cynical ploy by the DUP to undermine and water down the impact of an Irish Language Act.

Despite having a full year to reach a deal, without the distraction of running a Government, 2017 ended without a deal or even a sense that they were close to making one. Gregory Campbell and Robin Swann’s recent assertion that ‘there will be no Irish language Act’ – their very own Red line – doesn’t fill us with much optimism as we enter 2018. Our campaign, however, will go on.

In the meantime we continue to contact SOS Karen Bradley MP requesting a meeting with her, as was promised by James Brokenshire in October 2017. Surely for her to be ‘across the detail’ 60 minutes with the community calling for this legislation isn’t overly unreasonable?

Either way, when our political parties sit around the table this Wednesday and start discussing the Irish language Act, let linguistic need and fulfilling longstanding promises, and not political expediency, guide them.

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.