Belfast Telegraph

Alarmist unionist arguments against Irish Language Act totally spurious

By Chris Donnelly

The successful introduction of a comprehensive Irish Language Act will be the most powerful statement to date that the promise and vision of a shared and equal state and society in Northern Ireland laid out in the Good Friday Agreement is one that unites our main political parties, regardless of the contrasting levels of enthusiasm displayed towards the Acht na Gaeilge.

The alarmist tone being struck by some senior unionist politicians, including Doug Beattie and Jim Allister, about the potential consequences of an Irish Language Act sends out a clear message that many unionists have yet to embrace that vision.

The Irish Language Act explicitly promised by the British Government in the St Andrews Agreement formed part of the basis upon which the Paisley-McGuinness era of partnership government was established.

The failure to deliver on this aspect of the agreement continues to have a corrosive effect on the ability of political leaders and their broader constituencies to trust one another.

The unionist argument against an Irish Language Act does not stand up to scrutiny.

In both Scotland and Wales there are Language Acts in place to protect and safeguard the rights of language users, meaning that, as in the case for same-sex marriage, the unionist argument opposing an Act is premised upon a desire to reject what has become accepted practice across Britain.

The Irish language is not only indigenous to all parts of Ireland, but it has given us more than 90% of the place names across the north of Ireland, translated from their original Irish form, full of meaning and description, into English.

The charge often made by unionist politicians that Sinn Fein has politicised the Irish language is an inversion of the truth. History is littered with examples of successive British administrations seeking to destroy the language throughout the centuries.

In the 1920s the new unionist regime at Stormont proactively sought through legislation to remove Irish examinations and curtail time taught teaching the language in schools, and there are many quotes from elected unionist representatives from throughout the 20th century illustrating the deep hostility to its continued usage in Northern Ireland.

The growth and expansion of the Irish language community is a testament to the thousands of people who share a common love for using the language in all aspects of their daily lives.

These people come from any and all political backgrounds, and the expansion of the Irish-medium sector in education and of Irish classes in typically unionist communities are welcome signs of a vibrant Irish language sector that deserves to be positively acknowledged.

An Act is important because it offers a legislative framework from which everyone is clear of their rights and the state is clear about its obligations. It will enshrine in legislation rights for language users that can not be arbitrarily removed by politicians with hostile intentions. Conferring official status upon the language and creating an oversight commissioner's office will effectively remove the issue from political interference and allow issues relating to compliance to be resolved by the properly established authorities within an unambiguous legal framework.

The Irish language is an integral part of society, though the extent to which it impacts upon people's lives varies considerably.

There is no desire to compel people to learn or use the language, merely to allow others to do so with the same rights and entitlements as currently exist in Wales and the Republic of Ireland.

Chris Donnelly is a political commentator

Belfast Telegraph

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