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Why Irish deserves more than being a bargaining chip or a battering ram

Unionist parties have to stop seeing the language as some kind of threat, but as part of their own heritage, says Henry McDonald

D'Hondt - that system of proportional representation on which we elect and then political parties nominate their representatives to power-sharing ministries at Stormont - is not the only thing we can learn from Belgium. Because, if you want to see how the introduction of an Irish Language Act works in practice, visit the Belgian capital and check out its blue-and-white street signs.

Brussels lies on the ethno-linguistic fault line that runs through Belgium. It is a majority French-speaking Walloon city, but take a short tram or underground train ride north into its suburbs and you will arrive in the Flemish/Dutch-speaking zones of northern Belgium.

On the street sign plaques, even in central Brussels, alternate names are written in white. The bigger white fonts are in French; the smaller ones below them in Dutch.

No one seems to bat an eyelid or raise a row over the bilingual signage in Brussels. Which is just as well, probably, given that the Belgians have much more serious matters to worry about these days, from not being able to form a domestic government to the possibility of the overall disintegration of the European Union not only due to Brexit, but also the rise of the eurosceptic Right in neighbouring Netherlands and France (the same goes, by the way, for the German-speaking cantons of eastern Belgium, where there are German street signs and German language information on public buildings).

The DUP continues to protest that it never signed up to an Irish Language Act as part of the 2006 St Andrews Agreement that paved the way for power-sharing between it and Sinn Fein, ushering in the longest period of devolution since the peace process began.

Sinn Fein has countered that: within one of the annexes of the St Andrews accord there is a specific commitment to an Irish Language Act, which would put the tongue on full parity with English throughout Northern Ireland.

Such an Act would lead to a Brussels, or Welsh-style, scenario where, for example, all street signs would be bilingual - although you have to question the practicalities of this in the Northern Ireland context.

How long, for instance, would a sign with 'Shankill Road/Bhothar na Seanchille' stay on a wall in the loyalist heartland?

Nonetheless, the DUP is on weak ground over its denial about the aspiration towards an Irish Language Act contained within the 2006 Agreement that was secured on the eastern Scottish university town between Ian Paisley's negotiators and the Sinn Fein team led by future fellow Chuckle Brother' Martin McGuinness.

Moreover, the DUP's protestations about the potential costs of implementing an official bilingual policy across the region now seems a little threadbare given the soaring costs of the Renewalable Heating Incentive scheme that that party championed back in 2012, which, with its £500m bill to the taxpayer, led to the current crisis at Stormont.

The battle over the Irish Language Act is about to commence and will no doubt be part of Sinn Fein's shopping list of demands/concessions in post-election negotiations.

Alongside issues of legacy - more money for Troubles inquests and fresh inquiries into State killings (no mention on that shopping list, of course, of the many IRA atrocities committed against civilians since 1969) - the Irish language will be dragged across the floor of the meeting rooms and corridors as the two big parties seek to patch up a deal aimed at restoring the power-sharing administration.

Surely there is something tawdry and tribal about all of this in respect of the Irish language. To turn the language into a political board piece to be used in the DUP-Sinn Fein chess game is equally unseemly and depressing.

For a start, Irish historians and academics studying post-independence Eire (and later the Republic) are mainly in agreement that the forced policy of officially imposed Irish on the southern State failed to arrest the decline of the language being spoken in society.

Conversely, the recent renaissance in the south regarding Irish has come about organically from the bottom up, whether that be in the rise of Irish-medium schools created by parents and teachers who love the language, to the proliferating voluntary groups of enthusiasts who organise meet-ups in cities like Dublin for Irish-speaking coffee mornings or other social events.

Politicising the language as a weaponised tool in the culture war with unionism is the opposite of that laudable, voluntary spirit that has injected a new, very welcome impetus into the wider language movement across the island.

It is sadly ironic that the furore over the Irish Language Act flares up again with Assembly election looming so shortly after the death of one of the language's greatest advocates in the north.

The late Aodan Mac Poilin grew up in an Irish-speaking home in west Belfast before the Troubles and went on, during the conflict, to found the Ultach Trust, a cross-community Irish language charity, in 1990.

In an interview for the Belfast-based independent television company Northern Visions a few years ago, Mac Poilin explained that the trust's ethos "was that the Irish language belongs to everyone, it's not limited to nationalists and Catholics, but is for anyone on the island".

Mac Poilin recalled in the interview how he and the trust found themselves proverbially shot by both sides in relation to what they were trying to do with Irish.

"Unionists feared that nationalists were using Irish to sugar-coat their agenda. If they buy into the language, they buy into 'Irishness'. Their identity will be Irish and nationalist. Republicans doubted the trust. They felt they deserved the money. Some republicans felt they were the leaders of the Irish language movement," he said.

With those thoughts from the Ultach Trust's co-founder in mind, there is certainly a good case for an Irish Language Act, but not one that is the product of sordid political horse-trading in the next round of tortuous negotiations once the parties face each other around the table again after the March 2 election.

When it comes to the importance of Irish in the cultural history of all traditions on this island, at least a few grassroots unionists and loyalists do get it.

Witness the sterling work of Linda Ervine and her team of language activists in the heart of loyalist east Belfast.

All unionist parties - including the DUP - have not only to stop seeing Irish as some kind of threat, but as something that is part of their own historic heritage.

There is little chance of that happening, however, if the language continues to be used by republicans not just as a bartering chip, but also as a cultural battering ram to (in the words of Gerry Adams) "break these b*******" with a supposed "equality" agenda.

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