Reports of a weekend march through Belfast demanding the introduction of an Irish language act put the number of demonstrators at anything from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand.
Either way, not exactly a mass turn-out.
Could it be that many people are not quite sure what an Irish language act would entail? What would it mean for all of us? I’m always torn when it comes to the Irish language thing. I once had a go at trying to learn it at evening classes. In the end I gave up — the kids were small, it was hard to find the time to devote to it. But even that small introduction was, I believe, a good thing.
Irish (although Gregory Campbell may not thank me for saying this) is part of our shared culture in this place. Its links with Scottish Gaelic are obvious. It is not, it should not be, exclusive to any one side of the community. No one side of the community should be able to claim a monopoly on it.
Being able to speak Irish does not make you more Irish. Just as being unable to speak Irish does not mean your roots in this land are any less valid than someone who can limp through the Lord’s Prayer in Gaeilge. Irish medium schools? So long as children are being properly educated, they’re fine by me. And so long as the money being spent is being used to maximum effect. But here’s the thing. In order to promote the language, might the money not be better spent on widening the reach of Irish teaching instead of targeting a small and specific elite?
In an ideal world I think the language should be available in some (non-compulsory) form to students right across the board. Even, at the most basic, classes which would give schoolchildren an idea of how so many of the words and expressions (and local place names) in common usage have their roots in Irish would be helpful. Classes that would inspire interest and help scupper the notion that the language ‘belongs’ to one section of one side of the community.
This, of course, is the problem. And we all know it. The Irish language lobby comprises two very different groups. Those who love the language and genuinely wish to see it promoted to a wider audience. And those who see it as a party political weapon whereby Irish equals Irish republicanism.
This latter position has long been deeply divisive. It has excluded — deliberately excluded — unionists. It infers that Irish is a language for ‘ourselves alone’. Will the proposed Irish language act genuinely promote the language to the whole community? Or will it just amount, as many suspect, to more money spent on divisive symbolism?
If we are to finance the promotion of the language surely the cash should be spent in an inclusive and efficient fashion. One which would ensure that the unionist section of the community would also, to use the fashionable phrase, be able to claim ownership of it. This would involve steering clear of ‘promotional’ rules which tend to — which may in fact be specifically designed to — raise people’s hackles.
It’s time we all became a bit more adult about Irish. Promoting the language in a relevant way that respects equality would debunk the myth that republicanism has some special claim on the language.
And unionist and nationalist, we might all learn something from that.