Belfast council backs Irish language Act - unionists says it's 'stick to poke Prods in eye'
Belfast City Council has controversially voted to support the introduction of an Irish Language Act, after a heated debate in which backers of the initiative were accused of using it to "poke the Prods in the eye".
The comment, by Ulster Unionist councillor and Irish speaker Chris McGimpsey, came during a debate on a City Hall motion tabled by People Before Profit's Matthew Collins.
The motion stated that an Irish Language Act is "crucial in delivering fair and proper treatment for the Irish language community" and that the council "supports the introduction" of such an act.
During the debate, which saw councillors vote 34-22 in favour of the motion, opponents expressed fears about activists "weaponising" the Irish language, and said that the money needed to introduce the act would be better spent on hospitals, schools and roads.
Before the debate commenced, Irish language organisation Conradh na Gaeilge advocacy manager Ciaran Mac Giolla Bhein addressed the council.
He said that the voice of those calling for an Irish Language Act was "getting louder" and said it "will not be drowned out by misinformation, hostility or hypocrisy of some of those who on the one hand espouse the benefits of the Union but on the other hand deny us the very rights that are afforded to our Celtic cousins in other parts of that Union".
He added that the question of an Irish Language Act had been a "barometer" which "huge sections of our society" are using to detect the "sincerity" of the power-sharing Executive.
"The Irish language and its community are invisible in terms of the law," he said, adding that the entire sector "is almost entirely left to the whim of whatever party or minister" is in charge.
"Language rights are human rights to be enjoyed by all and denied by none. The days of Irish being unheard and unseen in this city are over," Mr Mac Giolla Bhein said.
But in the subsequent debate, Mr McGimpsey, who has worked to promote the Irish language, said he found it "difficult" to listen to Mr Mac Giolla Bhein.
He added: "People who are interested in the Irish language need to waken up, they need to recognise that they do have friends in the unionist community.
"But constantly attacking us, constantly weaponising the language and using the language as just another opportunity to poke the Prods in the eye is not the way forward."
DUP councillor Lee Reynolds said that Conradh na Gaeilge's proposals for an Irish Language Act were "not a sustainable basis for moving forward".
He added: "If this vote goes the way I think it does tonight, all those who voted to take Britishness off this building are now going to vote to put Irish in.
"Do they honestly think that that is going to be a situation where people will feel that they are being treated fairly, that their identity is being cherished, promoted, valued, or that it is about the removal of one and the insertion of another?"
UUP Deputy Lord Mayor Sonia Copeland pointed out that hospitals, schools and potholes may present a "greater urgency" in terms of spending money than an Irish Language Act.
But Sinn Fein councillor Seanna Walsh stated: "No-one has anything to fear from those who wish to speak the Irish language or to use the Irish language as their everyday language."
Alliance's Michael Long called on the DUP and Sinn Fein to "get this sorted and to move forward", as the "reality of the situation is the log-jam at Stormont isn't going to be sorted until this issue is sorted".