Belfast Telegraph

Q: How do you stop next week's inter-party talks collapsing over the Irish language? A: Build on existing developments ... and avoid fake news

Street signs could be bilingual, with local agreement, but extending this to main roads and motorways would lead to a 'Balkanisation of Northern Ireland', warns

Bilingual: Newry, Mourne and Down road sign in Irish and English
Bilingual: Newry, Mourne and Down road sign in Irish and English
Arlene Foster, who assured people that no one would be forced to learn Irish (Liam McBurney/PA)

By Brian M Walker

In the forthcoming discussions to re-establish our powersharing Executive and Assembly, the question of the Irish language will be a key issue. The matter was a crucial factor in the collapse of the last inter-party talks.

This time, it should be possible to find a resolution on the language issue, if our politicians will learn from went wrong before and if they are willing to take a common-sense approach.

What happened last year when it proved impossible to get an agreement on the Irish language issue? While the talks went on, there was widespread public debate on the matter, and this helped bring about their collapse and a failure to re-establish a government.

On the airwaves and in the press, there was heated, often sensational, argument over the Irish language issue. Some language enthusiasts put forward extreme proposals, such as bilingual signs on every street and road, including the Shankill Road, and Irish language quotas in the civil service.

In response to these proposals, there were extreme arguments on the other side: that the language issue was all part of a republican anti-British plot and that people would be forced to learn Irish.

Politicians made little or no effort to moderate the arguments, but often supported the viewpoints of their supporters. Reasonable views from the universities were not heard. Myths and exaggeration were peddled in the media.

All this affected the negotiations which were going on between the DUP and Sinn Fein. On February 13, 2018, DUP leader Arlene Foster issued a statement to assure people that no one would be forced to learn Irish and that there would be no Irish Language Act.

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Shortly afterwards, the DUP announced that they were pulling out of negotiations and the talks collapsed.

There had never been a possibility that people would be forced to learn Irish, but the atmosphere had so built up that many feared this.

Some unionist politicians showed no respect for the language.

Neither the DUP nor Ulster Unionists made an effort to control the growth of tension over the issue. They failed to prepare their followers for a reasonable compromise over the language issue.

At the same time, nationalists and republicans failed to challenge the excess demands of some of the language enthusiasts.

Irish language spokespersons promoted their cause with no appreciation of the effect on others. Both Sinn Fein and the SDLP failed to promote moderate proposals. Sinn Fein, in particular, latched on to the language movement which helped to politicise the issue, to the detriment of the language.

How do we make progress today on this matter? Part of the answer may be to build on existing developments.

My rates notification from Land and Property Services also carries its name in Irish, and I can make inquiries in Irish.

Other government departments could provide this service.

In some areas, councils use their Irish language name as well as the English version. In streets where there is a majority in support, it is possible to have bilingual names. Good resources are already available for Irish language-medium schools.

Any new legislation can include and build on these developments.

The question of the use of Irish in the courts has been a matter of controversy.

An act of the 1730s decrees that only English can be used in Northern Ireland courts.

Nonetheless, in practice many languages, such as Spanish and Polish (thanks to EU and human rights legislation), can be and are spoken in our courts, with the assistance of a translator. This right could be extended to Irish.

Such changes must be promoted in a moderate fashion. Local street signs can be bilingual, if there is local consent, but this should not be extended to main roads and motorways. This would lead to a Balkanisation of our society.

If there is an argument that main roads should have Irish as well as English names, there is an equal argument they should have Ulster Scots names. Trilingual signs on our roads would be a nonsense.

Irish services in the civil service and other bodies should not be provided through some quota system of Irish speakers (which would probably be discriminatory and illegal) but made available through existing staff with language skills, or an outside translation service, at not great cost.

In the courts, a translation service should also be available, when required, but not a full court service in Irish, not least because, even in the south, this has proven difficult to provide.

A commissioner for the Irish language has been suggested, but an ombudsman would be seen as less threatening.

The question of a separate Irish Language Act has proven controversial. In Wales, some 20% of the population speak Welsh which justifies their robust language act, and all parties support it.

In Scotland, a much smaller number speak Gaelic, rather like Northern Ireland, but in Scotland the matter is non-controversial and non-political.

In the unsuccessful negotiations last year, it was suggested that language legislation could embrace Irish, Ulster Scots and other language and cultural matters.

Such an imaginative approach could be tried again.

All these steps will improve the position of the Irish language in our society and should not be seen as threatening to anyone.

The reality is that English will remain the common language not only of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but also most of the rest of the world (thanks to our American cousins).

In September 2018, the Irish chief justice, Frank Clarke, in a speech in the USA to encourage American law firms to operate in Ireland after Brexit, acknowledged that in Ireland, "English is the spoken language".

So, unionists should have more self-confidence and not be worried that somehow Irish will replace English in Northern Ireland.

At the same time, they should note that, elsewhere in the UK, there are provisions for minority languages, including language acts.

The Irish language has a venerable history and, for many, a contemporary relevance.

Because members of the Catholic community (and others) value the Irish language as part of their cultural heritage, it is necessary that unionists should show respect for the language.

Also, it is critical that republican and nationalist politicians and language enthusiasts back moderate proposals. They need to be conscious of unionist concerns.

It is important for the Irish language that it be depoliticised.

For the future of the Irish language, it is vital that no section of the community sees it as a threat.

For language enthusiasts, this should be a priority. They should take care to prevent politicians using it for party advantage.

All parties must work hard to bring their followers with them. Care should be taken to prevent exaggeration and fake news.

Politicians must be prepared to work out suitable compromises and so allow our government to function again.

  • Professor Emeritus Brian M Walker is a former member of the School of History, Politics and Philosophy at Queen's University Belfast. His book, Irish History Matters: Politics, Identities and Commemoration, will be published next month by History Press Ireland, priced £20

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