Fraught as language debates are, there are bigger, more difficult subjects that need tackling. We musn't let a solvable problem become a roadblock to progressby Sarah Creighton / February 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
When I was in University I volunteered with a youth group working on a mural project in West Belfast. In one of the rooms we worked in there was a banner on the wall saying, ‘Free Róisín.’ At some point I repeated the phrase out loud, mispronounced the name and said ‘Free Rose-in.’ When somebody pointed this out I cringed—but we made a joke about it later on.
Mispronouncing an Irish name in Northern Ireland is embarrassing, but it’s pretty trivial. While it does happen to people from a nationalist or Catholic background it’s a really good way of letting people know that you’re a Protestant or unionist.
I grew up in East Belfast. I grew up with very little experience of Irish culture and the Irish language. In school, none of my classmates had Irish names. My life was full of people who were like me and my gaze was directed towards Britain. Only Sinn Féin and people in the Republic spoke Irish. I was never bothered or threatened by the language. I just had no connection to it.
It isn’t breaking news that some Protestants and unionists in Northern Ireland find the Irish language controversial. The issue was brought into sharp focus this week when DUP’s Arlene Foster withdrew from talks to restore the Assembly over proposals to introduce an Irish Language Act.
The history of the Irish language is long and tumultuous. Irish was the native tongue of the island and its usage declined when Ireland was colonised. After partition it didn’t fare well in Northern Ireland—a state built for people with a British, unionist identity.
History is the reason why the number of Irish speakers is low today. According to the 2011 census 10 per cent of people say they’re familiar with Irish. 6 per cent speak it and less than 0.2 per cent consider it their first language.
It’s in this context that activists have campaigned for legislation to protect the language and revive it. They look to Scotland and Wales for inspiration. Four of the main parties in the Assembly support an Irish Language Act and the proposals do have cross-community backing.
The DUP say they have no problem with the language being supported in government but they don’t want a stand-alone Irish Language Act, which they have often portrayed as a threat to British identity. Sinn Féin have made it clear that they won’t accept anything less.
Although both parties have a mandate—and their positions became red lines in the talks—DUP leader Arlene Foster’s decision to withdraw is disappointing. Nobody really knows what a potential Act will say. The uncertainty has lead to rumours: some believe it will mean compulsory Irish lessons in schools, more jobs for Irish speakers and Irish road signs all over the country. DUP voters were furious at the thought that Foster had made a deal on unknown terms.
Yet, ultimately, neither side has a majority in the Assembly, so any legislation will have to be acceptable to both parties.
Open discussion about potential legislation would go some way to allay uncertainty. A lot of people who are unfamiliar would likely be fine if they knew exactly what was intended by the act.
Road signs or not, this issue goes to the heart of Northern Ireland, and the question of how we live together and move forward as a society.
For nationalists and republicans, this isn’t just about language, but respect. It’s about their identity being welcomed and recognised in a state that has historically ignored them.
On Friday, the Guardian’s editorial made the argument that Irish Language has been weaponised by Sinn Féin, and that extending its standing would be taken as an assault on unionist communities. But activists have pointed out that Irish has already been weaponised by the British when they surpressed it. Protestants do have a historical connection to Irish. Irish road signs already exist, and are currently approved by local councils.
Productive and respectful conversations should take place to encourage people to embrace the language in their own way.
This debate is important—yet, in the grand scheme of things, it’s an easier conversation to have instead of dealing with the more difficult questions around legacy, the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme and the past. The Irish language is a sensitive issue, but it’s one we should be able to move beyond. While we discuss language, many families and Troubles victims are still waiting for answers and justice. Nobody seems willing to touch that wound.