Belfast Telegraph

Irish-speaking unionist calls for calm in language official debate

By Jim McDowell

An Irish-speaking unionist councillor has said language "should not be something that divides us" as Belfast City Council prepares to make a decision over the appointment of a new official.

Tonight's vote at City Hall over an Irish language official has the potential to be divisive.

The monthly meeting has two options going into a crucial vote on the floor of the debating chamber.

One is backed by Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance. That proposal is that the council appoints an official specialising solely in the development of Irish.

The other, from the DUP/UUP axis, is that a development official be appointed on a multi-language basis. They would accommodate the 'new Belfast' - where Polish, Romanian, Lithuanian and other languages now exist - and also cover the Ulster-Scots language portfolio.

The Irish language-only appointment proposal won the vote at committee level.

But it now goes before the full council at tonight's meeting.

And it now appears that there are financial, as well as cultural, issues surrounding any appointment.

Alliance councillor Michael Long said yesterday that the post would be 50% funded by an Irish language society, which, he added, was "entirely non-political, no matter what the Unionists may think".

He claimed that the full cost of a multi-language official would have to be borne entirely by the city council, and in turn Belfast ratepayers.

He also accused the DUP/UUP opposition to the single appointment of being "divisive".

But last night veteran unionist politician and City Hall Alderman Chris McGimpsey, an Irish-speaker himself, hit back.

He said: "The Irish language should not be an issue that divides people.

"We should be able to work out a policy on this properly.

"I have some empathy with those seeking to promote the language.

"But my problem with what is going to happen in City Hall is that Sinn Fein hijack the Irish language issue as a tool, as a political device.

"And unionists, including myself, are fed up with and just cannot accept that."

It is expected that the SF/SDLP/Alliance Party pact will be adopted at tonight's council meeting.

But one City Hall insider noted that the continued DUP opposition to the Irish language-only proposal would grate against party leader Arlene Foster's widely acclaimed gesture last week when she visited Our Lady's Grammar School in Newry.

She sat in during songs and conversations with some 30 Irish-language pupils there.

And as she left, she thanked them in Irish, saying: "Go raibh maith agat."

As for Alderman McGimpsey, he himself is no stranger to delving deep into Irish-speaking heartlands.

He once opened an address at a political forum in Crossmaglen, south Armagh, with a greeting in Irish.

And then he told his audience, in English: "I'd been told there'd be a lot of Rangers supporters here.

"Nobody told me it was Crossmaglen Rangers, not Glasgow Rangers!"

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