The scrutiny of the Identity and Language (NI) Bill concluded in the House of Lords recently. The introduction of this piece of legislation in May was hugely significant but the fact that it isn’t the subject of much public discussion is, I hope, a sign that unnecessary battles over language are becoming a thing of the past.
It has been 16 years since the St Andrews Agreement stated that “the Government will introduce an Irish Language Act” and whilst the Bill in the Lords is a cluster of Bills meshed together it represents a significant step forward for Gaeilge and our growing Irish speaking community.
The debate so far in Westminster has been fairly non-eventful with two Conservative and Labour Lords reflecting on their great grandparents’ ability to speak Irish in Clare and Cork in the 1800s. Baroness (Kate) Hoey on the other hand referred to the potential use of Irish as a ‘political weapon’. A reference that I haven’t heard in quite some time and thankfully it is now largely redundant in its usage.
Former Secretary of State Lord (Paul) Murphy reflected on the depoliticisation of the Welsh language over the past 20 to 30 years and used his own constituency as an example: “My former constituency, which is the most anglicised constituency in Wales, has three Welsh-medium schools, everybody is taught Welsh, and the vote for Plaid Cymru is minimal.”
The arguments over the ‘politicisation’ of Irish have been had again and again but I think everyone is now tired of it.
Thankfully the depoliticisation road that Wales has travelled is the one that the north is now on.
More people from a unionist background are learning Irish now. They do not see any contradiction in learning Irish, in the same way that this is the case for those in Wales that both support the union and claim an ownership over their own language.
That ownership of course goes back centuries. At the time of the Plantation for example, a proportion of the Scottish settlers spoke Scots Gaelic. They therefore easily understood those that spoke Ulster Gaeilge during that period of settlement.
It is also well known that Presbyterians made a huge contribution to preserving and reviving the Irish language in recent centuries.
In the present there will remain battles to be had unfortunately. This is especially true in regard to education where finance and other red herrings have been used to block development even though growth and demand has been on a continuous upward trajectory for the past two decades.
Seven years ago Gaelcholáiste Dhoire opened in Dungiven with less than 20 students. Now the enrolment for the school is nearly 300 and continues to grow year on year.
It was vehemently opposed by many MLAs in the Assembly at the time it opened even though it was only the second post-primary Irish medium school in the entire north, the other being over 50 miles away in Belfast.
In May, Sinn Féin’s Aisling Reilly became the first MLA to make a speech in the Assembly entirely in Irish without self-translation, a privilege many other legislatures take as given. A decade ago when Irish was spoken in the chamber you may have heard one or two loud mutterings or smart remarks from other members. On this occasion, MLAs made use of the new headphones on their tables to listen to the simultaneous translation and acted respectfully.
Stormont has been missing a committed Ulster Scots voice since Jim Shannon left in 2010 to sit in the ‘Hoose O Commons’. I think this is a great pity as those that speak it (whether they see it as a dialect or a language) deserve to have that reflected in the Assembly in some way.
In May a sea of red visibly filled out the streets of Belfast city centre as thousands of supporters of the Irish language gathered to demand “language recognition, respect, and rights”. Conchúr Ó Muadaigh, speaking on behalf of the organisers An Dream Dearg, said it was the “biggest Irish language demonstration of a generation”.
Irish language activist Linda Ervine said that she was there “to support language rights in Northern Ireland”.
“As a British citizen I ask for the same rights enjoyed in other parts of the UK,” she explained.
The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act was passed in 2005, whilst the equivalent Welsh version celebrates its 30th anniversary next year. We have a lot of catching up to do and public demand for greater support for the language is increasing in the face of further delays and questionable cutbacks that affect Gaeilge and its community.
Over the years nothing has been put on the political back burner more times than the Irish Language Act.
Even this latest piece of legislation was introduced seven months later than the UK Government had recently committed to.
When the Identity and Language (NI) Bill completes its passage through Westminster there will be provision for an Office of Identity and Cultural Expression, an Irish Language Commissioner and a Commissioner for the Ulster Scots and the Ulster British tradition.
The First and Deputy First Ministers must then jointly appoint these commissioners. However, if the Assembly is still in a state of paralysis once the Bill passes then Westminster needs to act immediately to appoint both commissioners.
Sixteen years on the back burner is long enough.