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If you want to see true cost of an Irish Language Act, look to Canada

There are many ways to promote Gaelic ... but Stormont's statute books aren't one of them, writes Professor John Wilson Foster


Irish Language protesters outside Stormont in March this year

Irish Language protesters outside Stormont in March this year

Irish Language protesters outside Stormont in March this year

Deputy Gerry Adams when he addressed the Dail on April 6 claimed that since 2011 those speaking the Irish language outside the school gates have shrunk by 4.4%. Those speaking Irish even inside the Gaeltacht have shrunk by 11%. The government strategy to increase the number of Irish speakers has been "an unmitigated flop".

He delicately omitted the percentage of the population actually speaking the language daily: 1.7%.

Bear in mind that the overwhelming majority in the Republic of Ireland are patriots, that Irish is enshrined in the constitution and that the Dublin government spends a thousand million euro annually on education in Irish, as Dennis Kennedy in these pages recently reminded us.

Anyone from outside the jurisdiction would draw the obvious conclusion. Sadly, the people do not wish to speak Irish.

But not only do Deputy Adams and his party refuse to draw this conclusion: they demand the Irish government redouble its efforts and, in effect, impose Irish on an unenthused population.

And - which takes the biscuit - they wish to sow the troubled narrative of official Irish in the Republic here in Northern Ireland where the soil has even less nutriment and the percentage of daily Irish speakers is close to zero.

Students of Irish culture find the decline of Irish regrettable. But Sinn Fein challenge our sympathy by politicising the indigenous language. A referendum on a united Ireland and an Irish Language Act (ILA) are two main planks in their election platform and they are now tongue-and-grooved.

The recent march by what the BBC called "thousands of Irish language activists" drove this home. "Organisers of the march and rally say that an Act has to be central to any political settlement." Language and politics are now publicly wedded.

Everyone in Northern Ireland is free to learn Irish. Already Irish is well represented in official Assembly documentation and broadcasting. But that Irish should be made co-equal with English in the courts, administration, commerce, education and place-naming of Northern Ireland is a surreal demand.

Nor does the Irish language need protecting. No body is seeking to quell its current use, contrary to the absurd assumption of a recent Council of Europe report that an ILA is a human rights matter. Talk of "language rights of persons belonging to a national minority" has no sensible bearing on Northern Irish reality.

The language activists try another tack. The Irish language "is part of our shared heritage". Of course our place-names and syntax are often Irish in origin and these are to be relished. The literature I study often has an Irish language dimension. But speaking Irish in daily life and in official transactions - no, that is not my heritage.

There are, of course, unionists and Protestants who learn Irish. They have been doing so for 150 years. Douglas Hyde formed the Gaelic League in 1893. But by 1915, Hyde had resigned from the presidency when he witnessed the league's politicisation. After the 1920s, enthusiasm waned.

The well-meaning unionists and Protestants who advocate support for the language (who could object?) and also assure us there are no political strings attached may prove cat's-paws, unless they would be happy enjoying the language in a united Ireland.

Sinn Fein know that an ILA would not be in the best interests of the living language or of community relations.

But that is not its aim, which is to secure a salient point in their long-haul campaign.

During the recent Years of Disgrace, the Irish language was not a significant issue for the party. Now it is centre stage. If we look farther afield we might see why.

The St Andrews Agreement (2006) promised an Irish Language Act "reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland".

We know the southern Irish experience and it is hardly reassuring. And while the potential linguistic parallels between Wales and Northern Ireland may seem plausible, the political differences are stark.

The loudest proponents of the Welsh language do not tirelessly seek dissolution of the jurisdiction, seeing Welsh as the iconic medium of their political work, and with a recent history of using violence in their cause.

For the political understanding of language, it would be better to consider the Quebec Question which originated at the same time as the Ulster Question, the early 17th century.

A smaller jurisdiction (Quebec) with its different religion (Catholicism), ethnicity and language (French) feels thwarted in its nationhood by a larger jurisdiction (Canada).

Of these differences (given the Catholic Church's recent collapse), language (Quebecois) is seen as the premier badge of separatism. The effort to achieve nationhood took violent form in the 1960s with assassination and bombing.

The Canadian government responded with the Official Languages Act (1969), making French equal with English in all federal government services and in the courts. This made sense in French-speaking Quebec, but not in the English-speaking Rest of Canada (RoC) which resented the Act.

This Act did not satisfy the separatist Parti Quebecois (Quebec's Sinn Fein) which was growing. By degrees, and despite losing two sovereignty referenda, Quebec has achieved the hallmarks of a "distinct society". The most important of these was achieved when, through the province's own Official Language Act (1974), Quebec became French-only.

Language is regarded as central to its cultural and political identity and the language police (OQLF) ensure citizens and businesses comply. Even place-names are significant. Quebec separatists believe what David E Hurst wrote: "The assigning of names is the beginning of nation building".

Unlike Quebec, of course, the Republic of Ireland is officially bilingual and in practice English-speaking. Yet its official recognition of Irish reinforces the idea of the distinct nation. And since Irish is an all-Ireland affair, widespread official recognition on both sides of the border would surely encourage the questioning of the existence of that border.

Meanwhile, I would cite the RoC to warn of the huge implications of official bilingualism. It is not just a case of French on the cornflake boxes that irritates Anglophone Canadians far away from Quebec.

It involves bilingual central government services and courts, but also the encouragement of lower tiers of government and public bodies to offer bilingual services - over here that could be city and borough councils, public libraries, museums and hospitals.

Then there is publicly-funded educational instruction in both languages where one language is in the minority. Might putative Irish speakers throughout Northern Ireland claim minority rights and demand Irish-medium schools?

The situation in the workplace (proportional hiring and promotion? Affirmative language action?), in businesses and in the countryside (cluttering signage and information), hardly bears thinking about.

Canada is a vast and rich country that can afford cultural extravagances. Northern Ireland is not.

After almost a half century of official bilingualism, about 2.5% of the RoC speaks French. That percentage is doomed to shrink further because cultural reality is mocking regulations.

Canada's Multiculturalism Act of 1971, promoting ethnic and cultural diversity in Canada, was meant to defang Quebec nationalism by diversifying the RoC while leaving Quebec culturally intact.

But multiculturalism has come home to roost. In parts of Canada, French-English bilingualism now looks silly. The affluent Chinese immigrants of Richmond British Columbia (60% of the city's population) increasingly conduct their businesses solely in Chinese. Punjabi is the second most spoken language in the RoC.

Why would we contemplate English-Irish bilingualism when even in Northern Ireland multiculturalism has already made it an anachronism? Far more Polish and Chinese is spoken in the province outside the classroom than Irish and this will become ever more evident.

But Sinn Fein, like the Parti Quebecois, are driven by ideology. For them, language is a badge of identity and instrument of exclusion.

The St Andrews' obligation remains and must somehow be met. But there are numerous formal and informal encouragements of the Irish language that can be practised without bankrupting the treasury, inconveniencing and alienating the population and advancing one political party's project to undo Northern Ireland.

But an Irish Language Act is not one of them.

John Wilson Foster is a Canadian citizen. He is the author of Between Shadows: Modern Irish Writing and Culture (Irish Academic Press; Kindle, 2017)

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