Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster's outreach to Irish sector welcome

Editor's Viewpoint

Arlene Foster has taken a positive step in seeking meetings with Irish language speakers and enthusiasts. Her caveat that the meetings will only be with those individuals or groups which have no political baggage is understandable, as the issue of an Irish Language Act has become one of the sticking points in the inter-party talks to restore devolution.

It is encouraging that she has already received two invitations from groups which would be regarded as independent of any political party.

This will give the former First Minister an opportunity to see that there are people who have a great enthusiasm and love for the language and who want it to be given some sort of legislative standing.

As has been pointed out to Mrs Foster, the Gaelic languages of Scotland, Wales and Cornwall are promoted in a positive way which is helping to preserve them from becoming dead languages, of interest only to academics.

And while there has been much negativity around the issue of an Irish Language Act, it has to be accepted that it is part of our everyday culture, whether we have any interest in it or not. Many of the placenames and even idioms in everyday speech derive from Irish, just as Ulster-Scots has a big influence in dialect here.

Mrs Foster's outreach to Irish language groups is further to be applauded, because there are some within her party who have shown a lack of respect - if not near contempt - for it in the past.

Her decision is one of those gestures that can mellow the atmosphere around what has become a contentious issue. If her engagement with the groups is deemed positive by them, it could move the debate on to a different level.

It is also a signal that we need more cross-fertilisation of culture in Northern Ireland. It is easy to sit in our own cultural silos and sneer at what others hold dear, without having any real appreciation of what it is or why it is embedded in other people's DNA.

The Orange Order found a surprising interest when it began an outreach programme, with significantly more Catholic schools than State schools requesting a visit. Those pupils saw a different side to the organisation than the one often portrayed in the media at times of tension on the streets over marches.

Understanding is the key to informed debate, and the opposing sides in the language debate will benefit from exposure to each other's views in a non-confrontational setting.

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