Belfast Telegraph

Republican rally at Stormont child exploitation, says Allister

By Victoria Leonard

Sinn Fein has been accused of "exploiting schoolchildren for political purposes" after around 100 youngsters in school uniforms appeared at an Irish language protest outside Stormont.

The event saw Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill, former Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin, campaigners and some pupils from Irish-medium schools put red tape across their mouths in protest at the ongoing deadlock over an Irish Language Act.

In a recent interview, DUP leader Arlene Foster claimed the issue was being used by Sinn Fein "as a way to humiliate unionists".

At the rally on Thursday, Mrs O'Neill said the young people had "come here to say that their language rights humiliate no-one". The primary and secondary school pupils also held posters featuring the slogans 'Sinn Fein Gaeilge' and 'Acht Anois'.

TUV leader Jim Allister told the Belfast Telegraph the children were being "used to promote a Sinn Fein agenda".

"Probably those schools involved don't object, but I would have thought they should have been more circumspect about letting them be used in that fashion," he said.

"Sinn Fein has done damage to the Irish language by politicising it, and, by continuing to do so, any meritorious points regarding cultural significance have been overshadowed.

“They are using them as a promotional shield for their political cause.”

Calling on schools and their boards of governors to "consider their PR", Mr Allister said they were "supplying the fodder of a highly politicised campaign".

"I thought it was just a stunt," he added.

"I thought it was ironic that the publicly-funded manifestation of the Irish language sector was demanding more.

"The Irish language has been highly feted in Northern Ireland, it has its own Irish-medium education sector.

"A controlled high school in Lisnaskea had to close as it only had 140 pupils, and an Irish-medium school opened on the same site with 40 pupils.

"It has its own North-South body Foras na Gaeilge, which is funded by Stormont and Dublin, and in 10 years the Irish language has had £177 million spent on it - they are the last people who should be complaining."

Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People Koulla Yiasouma welcomed the children's involvement in the Stormont protest.

She told the Belfast Telegraph: "Article 30 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) states that children have a right to enjoy their own culture and use their own language.

"Assuming the correct parental permissions were sought, I welcome children being involved in public debates about their rights.

"I also welcome any legislation which protects children and young people's rights under the UNCRC, whether that be for children who speak Irish, Ulster-Scots or other languages."

The current stand-off over Irish is one of the key issues preventing the restoration of power-sharing at Stormont. Sinn Fein has said it won't return to government with the DUP unless it agrees to a standalone Irish Language Act.

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