Belfast Telegraph

Why we have still to hear last word on debate about the Irish language

Sinn Fein's ideological approach to Gaelic may well invite invective, but the tongue itself should not be sneered at, writes Dennis Kennedy

Only in Northern Ireland, surely, would politicians struggling to bridge deep-rooted divisions in their community rush to create yet another one.

The province has for generations been split over perceived national identities and religion, but has been spared the fundamental divide of language that has plagued many countries across Europe.

Northern Ireland is monoglot; everyone speaks English and migrants rapidly become English-speaking.

There is a considerable minority who speak Irish, or who want to learn it, and others who, while they may not speak it, value it as part of the cultural heritage of the region.

But recent migrants apart, there is no non-English speaking minority disadvantaged by their use of English in daily dealings with various public authorities and the community at large.

Does this mean we do not need an Irish Language Act? The St Andrews Agreement states that: "The Government will introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language".

That poorly drafted paragraph seems to say that the British Government, then ruling Northern Ireland directly, would introduce an Irish Language Act at Westminster (technically, it could introduce a Bill, but not an Act).

In the event it produced no such Bill, and cannot do so now while the Northern Ireland Assembly is still functioning and having control over what is a devolved matter.

But the rest of the sentence clearly implies that the Northern Ireland Executive will work to enhance and protect the development of the language and this puts an onus on those who were party to the Agreement to honour that commitment.

The Northern Ireland St Andrews Act goes a little further, saying that: "The Executive Committee shall adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language."

That could, or could not, mean an Irish Language Act. Call it what you will, the Executive and the Assembly seem obliged to devise some strategy on the Irish language.

Failure to do so will mean the language issue will hang around as another toxic blockage on progress towards normality and proper government.

The St Andrews document says such strategy should stem from "reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland".

Policy from the first days of the Irish Free State was to designate Irish as the first national language and to work for its restitution as the spoken language of the country through a combination of compulsion and incentives.

In those respects the policy has been a costly failure.

In the 1926 census, 18.3% of the population were recorded as "Irish speakers".

In 2011, only 1.8% were using Irish on a daily basis, while 4.4% spoke it "regularly".

This despite the fact that every schoolchild for almost a century has had to "learn" Irish and great amounts of public money have gone into its promotion.

Despite the official homage paid to it today, Irish is patently not the language of Ireland.

Nevertheless, the language has not died, there are still significant numbers of Irish speakers and the language has its place in the cultural and literary history and life of the country. Sinn Fein's language policy for Northern Ireland, regrettably, seems as much ideological as the Irish State's has been since its creation - that is to assert that Irish is the language of a substantial portion of the population and that it is, therefore, necessary that people must be able to use Irish in their dealings with all official bodies.

The reality is that Irish is not the first language of any substantial minority here and Irish speakers are fluent in English. Is it, therefore, necessary to impose a heavy burden on the public purse by giving Irish an official status?

A few years ago a distinguished academic estimated that the Irish Government spent €1bn annually on education in Irish.

The insistence that Irish speaking must be facilitated in all government or official forums and agencies and the language used in various other ways - such as posting street names in Irish - will seem to some as a slightly more sophisticated form of painting the kerbstones to establish territory and will ensure that the language remains highly divisive, a tribal football.

What the Irish language deserves is not pretence, but real respect.

It is not a dead language; it is living and spoken and has a lively contemporary literature, as well as a rich heritage.

Nationalists should reflect on the southern Irish experience and ask whether imposing a degree of official Irish would be in the interests of the language, or in the development of a shared culture in Northern Ireland.

Some unionists use scorn and ridicule in this argument and Sinn Fein's approach may invite such invective, but the language itself should not be sneered at, and should certainly not be regarded as foreign to unionist culture.

Where do they think the names of almost every townland, village and town in Ulster comes from?

Arlene Foster has declared her 'never, never, never' to an Irish Language Act, but may wish to, or be obliged to, find a way round that.

The term 'Irish', as applied to what was called Gaelic, is relatively recent. The Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association were so named when founded in the late-19th century and are still so-called.

The switch to Irish was, in itself, highly political, an assertion that Gaelic was, indeed, the language of the people of Ireland, even though they were predominantly English-speaking.

Perhaps Mrs Foster and other unionists - and even Sinn Fein - could contemplate an Irish-Gaelic Language Act.

It is, after all, a more accurate description.

  • Dennis Kennedy is a former deputy editor of The Irish Times. He served as European Commission representative in Northern Ireland from 1985 to 1991

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