Belfast Telegraph

Why there'll be no big green button turning Northern Ireland bilingual overnight

The appointment of a Language Commissioner could remove the question of Irish from the political arena, writes Ian Malcolm

No one in Northern Ireland - Catholic or Protestant, republican or loyalist - is a stranger to the Irish language. We use Irish in our everyday lives, through surnames, place names and even in the way we use English. Words like "smashing" and "smithereens" are just two examples which have Gaelic roots.

That's a point I have made repeatedly over the years, but it's important to keep that indigenous link to Irish we all share in mind as debate on the language issue moves to a new level.

Irish is now centre stage in the political arena.

The DUP's outreach to those who love the Irish language for itself, without any of the perceived political baggage which may have become attached to it, is unexpected, but welcome.

I say that as someone with a strong unionist background and one who has never veered towards the - shall we say - more "verdant" side of a ballot paper.

My hobby is collecting and singing old - often long-forgotten - Orange ballads.

That I collect better than I sing is neither here nor there, but I think it helps demonstrate that you can be an Irish speaker without compromising on your core values.

Having worked in the Irish-medium sector for 20 years, I'm well aware that the language generates strong opinions on both sides and I can understand the suspicions of those who do not share my passion for Gaeilge.

Talk of an Irish Language Act has certainly brought some of those issues - indeed, fears - into sharp relief and I've had many informal chats in recent days with folk from the two main traditions in Northern Ireland.

Interestingly, I found that people from both communities shared certain reservations about an Act.

It might, therefore, be useful to allay some of those fears from the outset, by outlining what an Irish Language Act would not involve.

The first is that children would be forced to learn Irish at school. I doubt that any party, or politician, would be minded to issue any such paedagogical edict, which would fall foul of human rights principles straight away.

There may be opportunities to make Irish more widely available in the state school sector, but this would be subject to demand and rolled out purely as an option. Compulsory Irish would be an instant exam fail.

The second is that every document would have to be translated into Irish. In a time of financial stricture, with our health service and education provision under intense pressure, it would be a difficult sell.

I can certainly envisage the translation of important documentation into Irish, but I'd imagine that this would require a threshold level, its triggering based on the significance of and likely audience for whatever thrilling missive, or wearisome tome, is involved.

A Language Act would be about the provision of and access to services through Irish. This would involve our interactions with statutory authorities and agencies.

At the most basic level, this might be booking your MOT in Irish, or finding out why your brown bin wasn't collected.

Opportunities to interact with council and other service providers need not be expensive, or controversial, and the language used would always be your choice.

At a higher level would be the ability to use Irish in the courts, or simultaneous translation facilities in public forums - bearing in mind, of course, that public representatives would retain the right to be mind-numbingly boring whatever language they employ.

At the very least, an Act would give the language an increased public profile and would almost certainly involve signage.

Many will recall the outrage over the Irish word "uisce" (meaning water) on drains in Ballymena a while ago and some might think this is only a foretaste of how nasty the debate could be. But it needn't be so confrontational if approached with sense and sensibility.

Translink recently launched a consultation process about the use of Irish on its destination screens in Londonderry.

It says: "This initiative is a way to celebrate traditional place names in the city and their meaning, while also helping to support local tourism through a unique visitor experience.'' Translink already uses Irish (and English, too, of course) on routes serving west Belfast and this has not led to mass demonstrations or passenger boycotts.

We must be realistic, though, and understand that Irish language road signs, for example, might be less welcome in Carrickfergus than they would be in Carrickmore. That is just one reason why we need a commonsense way forward.

We can usefully look at whatever language provisions pertain in other parts of the world, but must remember that there may be no perfect model which would fit our own peculiar situation in Northern Ireland.

Wales would be a good starting-point - and it wouldn't require massively-expensive fact-finding visits to the other side of the globe - but we have to remember that Welsh is unencumbered by the unseemly burdens that Irish has had heaped upon it.

Legislating for a language is never going to be easy and those who may be tasked with this responsibility will have to proceed with caution and consummate sensitivity, taking on board widely diverging views.

Even the terminology used in the debate can be awkward.

When we look at Irish through the lens of "culture", even some of those who would not be advocates of the language see little harm in it. But when conflated with the concept of "identity", it becomes a different and more controversial animal altogether.

Implementing an Act would be more than a case of pressing a big green button and turning Northern Ireland bilingual overnight. Things don't work that way here and some measures would require gradual introduction.

We may have to acknowledge that a two-speed approach could be the only way forward in some instances, with phased implementation based on awareness and appreciation of local concerns.

Ultimately, much of this will come down to consultation, even - if necessary - at a micro-level.

The scope of a Language Act could be narrow, or broad, and that means that it's practically impossible to say what it would cost.

Figures thrown into the mix range from £2m to £100m per year.

The true cost will probably lie somewhere between the two, but until there's certainty over what an Act will include, it is all speculation.

I feel we are moving towards a situation where Irish is seen as part of our shared cultural heritage, rather than a beast of political burden.

The appointment of a Language Commissioner, I believe, would help remove the issue from the political sphere altogether.

Getting to that stage requires a degree of political consensus, but some are now embarking on a journey into previously off-limits terrain.

As an Irish speaker, and as someone from the unionist tradition, I welcome that.

The destination will not be linguistic nirvana, or any sort of promised land, but with a little bit of imagination and some flexibility we can get there as travelling companions rather than wayfaring strangers.

Dr Ian Malcolm, an Irish language lecturer and broadcaster, is the author of Towards Inclusion: Protestants and the Irish Language

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