Belfast Telegraph

Irish Language Act too much too soon

Editor's Viewpoint

The British and Irish governments have long-standing commitments to promoting the Irish language and Sinn Fein is now attempting to cash in those chips by launching a 12-week consultation exercise as a prelude to the introduction of an Irish Language Act.

While many people may regard this as a vanity project for republicans and an assurance by the party that it has not mellowed on its Irish unity ambition, it must be conceded that the language should be treasured and protected.

It is part of the heritage of this island, north and south, and the majority of place names derive from Irish. Although only a tiny minority of people here - perhaps 4% - are fluent in the language, that does not diminish its importance as a living part of our culture.

But protection and promotion of the language must take account of reality. Sinn Fein's proposals making it obligatory for State and semi-State bodies to actively promote Irish, the creation and erection of bilingual street names, the translation of Stormont business into Irish and making court services available in Irish merely on the whim of applicants are steps too far at this time.

Even the most ardent advocate of Irish will have to admit that there are very few, if any, people in Northern Ireland who cannot access all the services and information they need in English.

Some of these proposals seem designed to prove a point or to be provocative rather than underpin the status of the language. Sinn Fein knows that Stormont cannot afford the costs implied in its Act's proposals. Budgets in virtually every department are being cut and even essential services such as health, education and policing are suffering from a lack of funds.

These proposals do not do the cause of Irish language proper justice. They will simply provoke a sectarian bun fight, something that Irish language activists are keen to avoid. In such a scenario all rational debate goes out the window and the real loser is the language.

It would be a mature decision by Sinn Fein to postpone this process until a more financially advantageous time, or else pare back its ambitions.

The language is probably in a healthier state in Northern Ireland now than it has ever been in modern times. This is the wrong time to introduce this contentious act and it probably will not succeed.

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