Viewpoint: No cash translates as no Irish language
Published 17/10/2007 | 08:14
By rejecting an Irish language act, the DUP Minister for Culture, Edwin Poots, was reflecting the views of a majority of people, for various reasons. Some have objected because it was being promoted by nationalists, but most see no reason to add to the financial burdens on the Northern Ireland Assembly, when English is the common language and the use of Irish would be another cause of division.
The place of Irish and - to a much lesser extent - Ulster Scots was recognised in the Good Friday Agreement, when a cross-border body was established to look after their interests and two boards were set up to promote them. But last autumn Tony Blair clinched the St Andrews Agreement with the promise of legislation to Sinn Fein, and Mr Poots has had the unenviable task of letting them down. After a consultation process with 11,000 responses, there was never a chance that a DUP Minister would make Irish a second official language.
The real regret is that the language of 95% of Northern Ireland's place names has been used as a political football, rather than be given the respect it deserves as a minority tongue. The blunt fact is that, although a substantial 10.4% claimed to be Irish speakers in the 2001 census, only ardent supporters speak it in their homes and every one of those is fluent in English. Far more people speak Chinese or eastern European languages and have limited knowledge of English.
While there are many enthusiasts who want the language to be preserved for its own sake, and send their children to Irish language schools, there are others who see it mainly as a means of promoting their politics, in opposition to the union with Britain. Sinn Fein have always been advocates, for this reason, and both they and the SDLP have had considerable success in winning the Government's support for the language cause, even though interest is almost exclusively confined to the nationalist community.
Not surprisingly, unionist politicians have demanded a share of the language kitty, through Ulster Scots, and there is an unspoken acknowledgement that its claim to recognition is comparatively small. Although it has its enthusiasts, it is largely seen as a means of partly balancing the funds spent on Irish.
Of all the objections to an Irish language act, or any expansion of Ulster Scots, the most decisive is contained in the cost to the public purse, already running into millions. Devolution is proving to be a costly exercise, with funding gaps in every department, and there is no money to be wasted in unnecessary translation or duplicated signage. Westminster could still pass an Act without cross-community consent, but that would fly in the face of democracy - and good community relations.