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Why Sinn Fein needs to stop politicising the Irish language


Vague proposals: Sinn Fein culture minister Caral Ni Chuilin

Vague proposals: Sinn Fein culture minister Caral Ni Chuilin

Vague proposals: Sinn Fein culture minister Caral Ni Chuilin

Imagine the scene. A man appears in court in Belfast to face charges of a completely non-political nature. He appears before a judge and, being fluent in Irish, requests a bilingual hearing, because the new Irish Language Act now allows Irish to be used in the conduct of the court.

His mother tongue is English, but he wants the hearing to be bilingual, because that is his right. The judge, the Court Service staff and the legal representatives largely speak English, so translators are brought in - even though the defendant understands every word.

The judge addresses him in English before his words are translated - even though the defendant already knows what he said. He replies in Irish before it is translated - even though he and the judge speak the same language.

It sounds far-fetched and perhaps it is, but it's hard to tell from the vagueness of the proposals for an Irish Language Act, recently put out to public consultation by Sinn Fein Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin, just how far they will go.

Two things worry me about the proposed Act, the first being that no one has a clue how much it would cost. The second is the right to speak Irish in any court and that has the potential to pave the way for money-burning scenarios like the one above.

I have nothing against the Irish language, far from it. I adore it. And, in case you need proof, here it is: I went to summer colleges in the Donegal Gaeltacht five times in my teens and they remain among the best days of my life.

I earned a gold fainne (a ring pin awarded for fluency), which I can't wear anymore for fear of being mistaken as fluent, but it remains among my treasured possessions.

I have a GCSE and an A-Level in Irish. I began a degree in it at Queen's University with the dream of becoming an Irish teacher, but eventually changed to a different subject for several reasons.

One of those reasons was a growing discomfort with a general assumption that I was a raving republican because I could speak Irish (not true) and a realisation that my career options were somewhat limited.

I'm proud to have read, admittedly very slowly, An Beal Bocht by Myles na gCopaleen. Maire Mhac an tSaoi was among my favourite poets at school.

I can sing Eric Clapton's You Look Wonderful Tonight in Irish, but not in English. Irish is often my language of choice for cursing. And finally, one of my biggest regrets in life is that I unintentionally abandoned my knowledge of such a beautiful language.

Irish has a valuable place in all our culture. And if we lived in a world where the public purse was bottomless, I'd have no objection to an Irish Language Act. But we don't and my love of Irish doesn't extend to writing out a blank cheque to needless spending.

The recent decision by the Newry, Mourne and Down shadow council to place Irish above English on its signage (a joint act by Sinn Fein and the SDLP) is not only divisive, it's a perfect example of such needless spending. Surely its citizens would prefer money being spent on bin collections?

Having once endured that incorrect, but unavoidable, feeling that speaking Irish links you to republicanism, the best thing Sinn Fein could do to allow it to flourish is to step away from the debate. And the SDLP should stop trying to out-Shinner the Shinners.

Their joint obsession with ramming it into public life at all costs does far more damage than the "curry my yoghurt" mentality of the DUP.

It's about time the DRD saw the light

When is a streetlight not a streetlight? When it doesn't emit any light, of course. Then it's just a useless big pole.

My nearest streetlight has joined thousands of others by blacking out.

Two months on, two emails and one very long wait on the phone, the Department for Regional Development has finally confirmed it's on a waiting list to be fixed.

But it's a very long waiting list - caused by drastic budget cutbacks - and I was advised not to expect action any time soon.

So, with a nice stretch in the evenings due along any day now, when our light is finally working, no one will really notice.

Quick fix masks a worrying problem

Hurrah for Michael Graham, a man after my own heart when it comes to pedantry and observing the rules of punctuation.

The Titanic Quarter director of corporate real estate was rightly horrified when a new street sign arrived in honour of the eminent scientist John Stewart Bell. Thanks to Belfast City Council, Bell's Theorem Crescent was missing its crucial apostrophe, which Michael set right with some black masking tape just in time for the naming ceremony.

"It doesn't set a great example to young kids when you are trying to impress upon them that grammar and those sort of things are important and technically correct," he said. So true. The man deserves to have a street named after him.

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