WHEN I first began learning Irish just over six years ago my thoughts about an Irish Language Act were very different to today. I saw no need for legislation, I was happily attending my weekly class, no one was stopping me from learning Irish, all was well in my little world and I had no interest in an act. However it was visiting Scotland and meeting Scottish Gaelic speakers that made me begin to think more deeply about the issue.
I became aware of the need to protect our minority languages; that languages such as Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Cornish and our own Ulster Irish are surrounded by a tsunami of English that threatens to eradicate them if we do not intervene. I began to understand how government policies can encourage or discourage the use of a language by making one the official language at the expense of another and how that official title will ensure the survival and growth of the preferred language. I observed how government intervention can put in place legislation that will work to promote a language which is in decline.
I began to realise that legislation around language is required in Northern Ireland, but when I saw the reaction of people within my own community during the flag protests, I was concerned that a language act could provoke a similar response. I felt that given time people within the Unionist community would come to realise that the language is no threat to them. I believed that the Irish language community needed to be patient, that things shouldn’t be forced, that our politicians are capable of working for the good of all the people in Northern Ireland. I no longer believe that. I have found both interest and disinterest in the language from within the Unionist community. There are also a minority who hate the language and will put up any argument, no matter how unreasonable, to thwart efforts to promote the language. All the patience in the world will never change their minds.
In the end it was Gregory Campbell’s ‘curry my yogurt’ comment that made me come down once and for all on the side of an act. The Scottish Act asks for ‘respect’ for Scottish Gaelic and above all else, I would like to see the Irish language treated with respect in Northern Ireland.
For many years now, Irish speakers in Northern Ireland have been seeking parity with Scotland and Wales. The two language acts that already exist within the UK, although different, both provide protection for their respective minority language and provide rights for speakers. Since the introduction of the acts, the numbers of speakers within both regions have increased with many new schools now offering pupils the opportunity to become literate in two languages.
Irish speakers in Northern Ireland ask for nothing more than what is already provided in other parts of the UK, yet according to one Unionist politician, a language act is not about the protection of a minority language but is simply a ‘vehicle to hollow out our Britishness.’ As someone who is familiar with other Gaelic speaking regions within Britain, I find this type of attitude ludicrous. Gaelic is spoken in Scotland and in the Isle of Man; they are closely-related Celtic languages and ultimately derive from the same roots as Welsh and Cornish. How can a language, which linguistically links us to other parts of Britain, threaten Britishness? Surely the opposite must be true. The language confirms us as a group of islands with strong familial links.
On social media sites, I read that the Irish Language Act is part of a devilish plot by Sinn Féin to lead us into a United Ireland, while the IRA’s outdated Green Book is continually quoted as a reason why there shouldn’t have a language act. This makes me ask the question, were Sinn Féin or the IRA behind the introduction of language acts in Wales or Scotland? Were the acts in these regions not introduced to protect their minority languages and provide rights for speakers? Would it be too big a leap to suggest that the Irish language sector in Northern Ireland might be seeking legislation for the same reasons?
Unionists are afraid of a language act because they believe Irish signs will be everywhere and Protestants will find it harder to get jobs in the civil service because of quotas for Irish speakers. I can’t envisage signs going up en masse in areas in which they would not be welcome. At present the Guildhall in Derry has trilingual signage in Irish, English and Ulster Scots and it doesn’t deter visitors from either community and no-one seems particularly bothered by them. As for ‘jobs for the (Irish-speaking) boys’, we have already had enough well-publicised scandals involving the DUP and Sinn Féin preferring their own. Surely any policy on public appointments for Irish speakers would be subject to an equality impact assessment and be closely monitored by the Equality Commission.
A language for all
More than 5000 children and young people in Northern Ireland are being educated through the medium of Irish. The benefits of bilingual education are recorded worldwide yet these schools had to fight long and hard to obtain official recognition. We have a growing and vibrant workforce employed within the Irish language sector yet the language is insultingly referred to as a ‘hobby’ language. Funding is removed at the whim of a minister and the Irish language community (above) are told that they are being unreasonable for seeking the security of a language act.
Accusations are made that a language act will discriminate against members of the Unionist community. Well, I’m a member of the Unionist community and I work within the Irish language sector and I am certainly not the only one. I know many Protestants who are qualified in Irish and many more who are presently attending courses. Some integrated schools offer Irish and of course all Irish-medium schools are open to pupils of all backgrounds. Added to this is the incorrect assumption that all schools in the maintained sector offer Irish.
Over the last six years I have watched the number of Protestant learners of the Irish language steadily increase year on year. This year, four of our learners —all Protestants—who started attending classes in East Belfast four years ago, will begin a two-year Diploma in Irish Language at Ulster University. I myself completed the Diploma this year and met other Protestants who were also on the course.
None of us feel that we are being discriminated against, yet people who do not attend Irish language classes or events, and who have no engagement with the sector are telling us all about it! Perhaps I can reassure them—as I take it that their concern is genuine—that in my experience, learners from the Unionist community are given great encouragement and treated with nothing but respect by members of the Irish language community.
Time to act
We have listened to the debate about whether or not the DUP actually promised to instigate an Irish Language Act as part of the St Andrews Agreement and there appears to be some doubt as to whether or not it is the responsibility of the British Government or our Stormont Assembly to put this legislation in place. Whatever the actual situation it does not change the fact that the Irish language community accepted in good faith that an act would be put in place and now feel that they’ve had ‘their eye wiped.’ Surely this is not how a community should be treated.
Recently the tone has changed from ‘leprechaun language’ and ‘curry my yogurt’ to reports of the DUP acknowledging that the costs of an act are ‘reasonable’ and ‘entirely legitimate.’ As the wrangling between the two big parties continues, Irish speakers can only await the final verdict.
Whatever the outcome in Northern Ireland, we are all on a journey and perhaps it will only be when an Irish Language Act is actually in place that English speakers will realise how little impact it will have on their everyday life. If there is a strong cross-community outreach programme as part of an act, some of the naysayers may actually come to like it!
Linda Ervine is the Irish language officer for East Belfast. Turas is a project of the East Belfast Mission: http://www.ebm.org.uk