Nelson McCausland: A stand-alone Irish Language Act is divisive and ignores Ulster-Scots' rich heritage
All our indigenous cultural identities should be valued — not just one, says Nelson McCausland
Northern Ireland is an English-speaking community with two indigenous minority languages, Irish Gaelic and Ulster-Scots. However Sinn Fein continue to demand a stand-alone Irish Language Act, with Irish Gaelic as an official language in Northern Ireland alongside English. They want to ignore our linguistic plurality and replace it with a divisive linguistic polarity.
That is why the demand by Sinn Fein for an Irish Language Act continues to be one of the areas of contention in the current political negotiations.
Much of the debate has been about the cost of such legislation and it was noticeable that when the Gaelic League published its proposal for an Irish Language Act, with an estimated cost, the head of another Irish language group suggested that this was an underestimate. Sinn Fein are evasive about both the content and the cost of an Act but some things are clear.
Actions speak louder than words and the actions of Newry, Mourne and Down District Council are an example of the strident approach of republican politicians.
New council signage has Irish as the first language with English relegated to a secondary position and just in case anyone isn’t aware of that ‘Irish first’ policy, the council has erected 18 Irish-English boundary signs on roads leading into the council area.
Such signs have not received a universally warm welcome and already some of them have been defaced with the Irish words painted out.
Most unionists regard the ‘Irish first’ signs as simply ethnic territorial marking by Sinn Fein and the SDLP. The first language on the signs is not the language that is shared and used by almost everyone in Northern Ireland, whatever their creed, culture or politics, but a minority language which is totemic for just one community.
So would an Irish Language Act mean the introduction of such Irish-English signage across Northern Ireland?
Well some years ago a Sinn Fein minister proposed the introduction of Irish-English road and traffic signs so we know it’s part of their vision.
Meanwhile, Translink are consulting on the introduction of Irish language signage on buses in Londonderry.
There is already bilingual Irish-English signage on buses in nationalist west Belfast and Translink propose to introduce such signage in Londonderry as a pilot on one route and with the intention of rolling it out across the city.
A stand-alone Irish Language Act would move this process into top gear and provide a legal basis for implementing the Sinn Fein vision of an overwhelmingly Gaelic Northern Ireland, one that would be a cold house for unionists.
The Irish Gaelic language is a totemic language for Irish nationalists and republicans and that was illustrated in the recent census in the Irish Republic. Most people there like to have Irish as the first official language of the state but only 1.7% speak it every day!
We have two indigenous minority languages in Northern Ireland, Irish Gaelic and Ulster-Scots, and both are part of our cultural diversity and cultural wealth.
Both have a rich history and impact on our lives every day. Many of our place names are Anglicised versions of Gaelic names while some are derived from Ulster-Scots words.
At the same time our Ulster dialect draws heavily on the Ulster-Scots language and to a lesser degree on Irish Gaelic.
The Belfast Agreement made substantial commitments to Irish Gaelic in response to demands from Sinn Fein, while ignoring other linguistic and cultural traditions.
Those commitments have facilitated the growth of Irish-medium education and broadcasting. However, they have not provided the basis for a shared and better future, based on equality as well as diversity.
The census in the Republic is a stark reminder of the totemic nature of indigenous minority languages, especially Irish Gaelic, and fundamentally the contention in Northern Ireland is about cultural identity more than language.
If we are to build that shared and better future we need a proper engagement around these matters and that will take time. All our indigenous cultural identities should be valued, not just one.
The attitude of Gerry Adams and Michelle O’Neill may persuade some into considering a quick fix, but that would be a mistake.