Party’s ‘red line’ demand for the restoration of power-sharing doesn’t tally with reality, writes Nelson McCausland
Bank statement proves that Sinn Fein calls for Irish language act simply do not add up
Earlier this week, the Bank of Ireland announced that it is to phase out the Irish language option on its ATMs after it found that hardly anybody was using it.
This decision has come at a bad time for the Sinn Fein-driven campaign for an Irish language act in Northern Ireland.
It is especially damaging for that campaign, because the Bank of Ireland has explained why it is dropping the Irish language option.
A bank spokesman said: “When we analyse our ATMs which provide an Irish option, we find that fewer than 1% of ATM transactions on those devices are completed in Irish.”
According to the 2016 census in the Irish Republic, there are 1.76 million people who said they could speak Irish, which is almost 40% of the population. However, fewer than 1% of those using the bilingual ATMs chose the Irish option.
Knowledge and usage are very different things — even when people have the option to use the language.
Perhaps those who are so ardent in their demands for an Irish language act in Northern Ireland might care to reflect on those statistics — especially since Irish Gaelic is the first official language of the Irish Republic and enjoys the benefits of an Official Language Act.
Then, secondly, the Bank of Ireland reported that some customers had complained that the Irish Gaelic option was distracting and that they had selected it by mistake.
Bilingual signage and services in Northern Ireland have been at the heart of the demands from Sinn Fein as part of its overall demand for an Irish language act, but here we see that a bilingual service can lead to confusion and distraction.
It is not surprising that the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Dublin has branded the decision as “disgraceful”.
However, I was surprised by one comment from Sinn Fein’s Irish language spokesman, Peadar Toibin.
He criticised the banking sector in general and admitted: “It is impossible to get statements, online banking, or any customer service in Irish anywhere.”
It seemed a rather bizarre admission from Sinn Fein at a time when they are demanding a panoply of Irish language provisions in Northern Ireland.
It is clear that Sinn Fein hoped for a short, sharp campaign for an Irish language act in Northern Ireland.
They wanted it done and dusted as quickly as possible and that is understandable, because, as time goes on and as news stories such as this filter out, the more the weakness of their arguments is exposed.
This was a decision by the Bank of Ireland. That means Sinn Fein cannot blame it on Arlene Foster, or the DUP.
I suppose they could accuse the Bank of Ireland of “cultural bigotry”, or “unionist intransigence”, but it wouldn’t really be credible.
The Bank of Ireland announcement has come just at the point where political parties in Northern Ireland are set to resume negotiations about the restoration of devolution.
Sinn Fein’s “red line” demand for an Irish language act has been one of the main obstacles, but the Bank of Ireland has really undermined the credibility of that demand.
So, perhaps it is time for a new approach to the negotiations about minority languages and that is a broader conversation about “cultural traditions” in Northern Ireland, including our two indigenous minority languages: Irish Gaelic and Ulster-Scots.
Our cultural traditions, including our minority languages, are part of our cultural wealth and the challenge is to get an agreed vision for that cultural diversity.
That could be a constructive conversation and, to help start it, I would suggest that we look to a good relations model based on the principles of equality, diversity and interdependence.
It would mean a recognition that there is a cultural diversity in Northern Ireland. It would also mean an acceptance of equality and that was what Arlene Foster was speaking about when she warned of those who demand cultural supremacy and preferential treatment.
So, perhaps, as talks resume, Sinn Fein could take the opportunity to reflect on that approach and on the reality which the Bank of Ireland has exposed.