How language and culture become ‘sectarianised’

The day when we got three words of Irish from Nelson McCausland should be a red letter day for us Irish speakers but the use by Nelson of ‘An Béal Bocht’, the title the classic comic novel by Strabane’s Brian Ó Nualláín, (aka Myles na Gopaleen/Flann O’Brien), marks yet another low point in the discourse on language issues by yet another unionist politician. He was never known as Brian O’Nolan as Nelson writes, effecting to reduce this giant of Irish literature to the faux English language version of his proper given name.

Nelson uses his Belfast Telegraph column – to yet again talk about sums of public money which have been invested in Irish language projects over the years. He directs his focus on Cumann Mhic Reachtain in north Belfast which acquired a building on the Antrim Road which was being sold by a local CBS with funds from An Chiste Infheistíochta/The Investment Fund. This fund was set up as a result of a deal between Sinn Féin and the then Labour Government back in 2008 when there was another hiatus in the power sharing arrangements following the resignation of Ian Paisley and the objection by SF to the elevation of Peter Robinson as a matter of course to the position of First Minister. In the preceding six months, the DUP Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure Edwin Poots had axed the Westminster funded Irish Language Broadcast Fund without any consultation in one of his first acts as minister in the department. This led to an outcry by Irish speakers for whom the fund had been the long delayed delivery of a promise in the Good Friday Agreement:

• seek more effective ways to encourage and provide financial support for
Irish language film and television production in Northern Ireland; and
• encourage the parties to secure agreement that this commitment will be
sustained by a new Assembly in a way which takes account of the desires
and sensitivities of the community.

Some of the anger of the Irish language community had been directed at Sinn Féin and SDLP ministers who had not been able to stop the unilateral axing of the ILBF by Poots, now cast as the DUP negotiator who was part of the team which conceded that an Irish Language Act was necessary it seems.   This led to the side deal in 2008 which led to the reestablishment of the ILBF and the creation of Ciste. Since Ciste’s inception, it has levered in funds not just from other sources of public funding but also from overseas donations.   It has turned £8m into £24m worth of investment for the public good.     Aras Mhic Reachtain in north Belfast, one of the facilities which has been funded by Ciste, is an example of the benefit to society which accrues from Ciste and is undeniably a boon to the whole community in north Belfast, not just Sinn Féin or Irish speakers.  It’s a venue for top class events and classes for all sections of the community.

This is, according to Nelson, who bandies around the names of different personalities whom he claims are Sinn Féin or ‘staunch republicans’, evidence that public money is being lavished on the Irish language – Republican sector.    In Nelson’s view, public money is ‘spent’ – rather than invested – on the Irish language.   He doesn’t see it as a public benefit.    This is a common theme in the attacks of this ‘Ulster Scots language activist’ on the Irish language.   Nelson never mentions in his attacks on the Irish language, however, that whenever the Irish language sector gets money ‘spent’ on it, it’s always accompanied by a corresponding benefit for the Ulster Scots sector.  Thus Foras na Gaeilge has the Ulster Scots Agency, the Irish Language Broadcast Fund is ‘balanced’ by the Ulster Scots Broadcast Fund and the Ciste Infheistíochta Gaeilge was set off against the Ulster Scots Academy which attracted public funding too. In fact, the Irish Language Broadcast Fund was agreed in 2003 with funding of £12m and an equivalent £12m for an Ulster Scots Academy which exists now as a website, it seems.

It would be interesting to find out who’s involved in the Ulster Scots Academy which had £12m of public money ringfenced for it as a ‘quid pro quo’ for the Irish Language Broadcast Fund – but that information is not available on its website.   Its twitter feed was not updated since 1 July 2015.   Its sister site for the Ulster Scots Language Society has a section on news but the latest event there was in 2009,  Nelson could tell us more about the Ulster Scots Academy and Ulster Scots Language Society, I have no doubt, and tell us how the £12m allocated for the project was spent or invested.

In his article, Nelson says that Sinn Féin plays the ‘Béal Bocht’ or ‘poor mouth’ about support and ‘respect’ for Irish.  In the next breath he refers to newspaper articles which talk about various sums being spent on Irish – one is Nigel Dodds’ ‘call for truth on Irish language funding when he revealed that the Irish language had received £171m over the period of 2011-16.   That expenditure/investment included £88.4million on Revenue Costs and Grants for Irish Medium Schools and £30.9millon on Capital Costs for Irish Medium Schools.   Irish medium schools are funded because there’s a demand for them from parents who want that option for their children.  They pay taxes and if their children weren’t attending Irish medium schools, they’d be attending other schools and would similarly be entitled to state support for their education.   Other items on Nigel’s list include the Irish Language Broadcast Fund – but no mention of the Ulster Scots Academy?

What’s coming across very clearly from this article by Nelson is that all public money being invested in sectors such as education etc from which Irish speakers derive a benefit, alongside the majority English speaking community, are largesse or benefits to which they should not be entitled.  It’s the ultimate irony then that he says as he concludes his article:

That £24m is just part of the money that already goes into the Irish Gaelic language and, last year, Nigel Dodds stated that a total figure was around £170m.

A recent newspaper report had a figure of £190m — largely as a result of commitments made 20 years ago in the Belfast Agreement and subsequent Labour side deals.

So, when Sinn Fein demand respect for Irish, is that not more than enough respect for anyone?

If Irish speakers were playing the same game as Nelson and his fellow travellers, we would be claiming the Irish language as an exclusively nationalist property, our equivalent to the Orange Order culture which costs this society far in excess of the investment on the Irish language every year, on policing parades and protests and the like.  But that’s not the case, the Irish language is something Irish speakers want to share with everyone.   The Irish Language Broadcast Fund funds TV programmes which are always subtitled in English and are available to all.  Ciste delivers buildings and facilities which are open to the public and, because of the additional funds which Ciste leverages from different sources, deliver value for money to the public good.  On top of that, campaigns for the Irish language invariably benefit the Ulster Scots language as the likes of the DUP and the British government always look for something for US ones when anything is promised for the Irish language.

There’s a strong likeliehood when the negotiations are resumed – as they will in due course – the DUP and SF will hammer out a deal for Irish and Ulster Scots.  The Stormont Executive and Assembly collapsed as a result, in large part, to the petty and pathetic final insult from the DUP, when the Líofa Scholarship, cost £50,000 per year, was axed peremptorily and without consultation in the mouth of Christmas, 2016.  That and the RHI scandal, also brought to you in large part by Nelson’s DUP colleagues, at a cost of £100s of millions.   It has already cost a great deal more and it hasn’t been restored.  What’s the betting that a package for Irish and Ulster Scots will not be a part of the deal which gets Stormont back online?