Belfast Telegraph

Why unionists can't allow Sinn Fein fake news to frame terms of debate about Irish language

Saying 'no' to republican demands is not enough; unionism needs its own cultural strategy, writes Nelson McCausland

Mary Lou McDonald (left) and Michelle O’Neill lead the Sinn Fein delegation for talks this week at Stormont, where the Irish Language Act is still a stumbling block for progress
Mary Lou McDonald (left) and Michelle O’Neill lead the Sinn Fein delegation for talks this week at Stormont, where the Irish Language Act is still a stumbling block for progress

One of the arguments now being used by Sinn Fein and some other advocates for an Irish Language Act is that it is the "British" thing to do. It may seem a strange line of argument for Sinn Fein, but yesterday, a former Sinn Fein election candidate wrote that "language acts have become accepted practice across Britain".

A former Sinn Fein MLA made the same point in an interview on Radio Foyle, when he referred to language acts in the "other parts of the Union".

It is an interesting argument and one that seems to have become part of an armoury of arguments, but it is a fake argument.

Both referred to the situation in Scotland and Wales and, indeed, there is a Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act for Scottish Gaelic. There is also a Welsh Language Act in Wales.

They seem to think that this clinches the matter and, indeed, it sounds plausible, but in fact their claim about "accepted practice across Britain" is another example of what is now referred to as "fake news".

Great Britain consists of England, Scotland and Wales and language acts are not "accepted practice across Britain" - no matter how often that fake news is repeated.

Since signing up to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the United Kingdom Government has recognised four indigenous minority languages in Great Britain: Scots and Scottish Gaelic in Scotland, Welsh in Wales and Cornish in England. It has also recognised two minority languages in Northern Ireland: Ulster-Scots and Irish Gaelic.

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So, if we are to follow the line of argument now being employed by Sinn Fein and others that language acts are "accepted practice across Britain", we should expect to find four language acts in Great Britain, whereas there are only two.

Of the four minority languages in Great Britain there are two languages that have a language act and there are two that don't. So, it isn't the case, as has been claimed, that it is now "accepted practice across Britain".

There is no minority language legislation for Cornish in England and, in Scotland, only one minority language has legislation.

It is an argument that is easily demolished, because it is a fake argument, but I would suggest that unionists would do well to reflect on it as evidence of the way in which the Sinn Fein Irish language strategy is evolving.

The core strategy is what it was 30 years ago, but it has been adapted and modified to take on-board changing circumstances and emerging opportunities.

Thirty years ago, it was framed - in the words of a Sinn Fein booklet - as "cultural warfare" and "a bullet in the freedom struggle". At that time, in the wake of the republican hunger strikes, it was about motivating core republicans and radicalising nationalists.

Then along came the peace process and decommissioning, and once the IRA had decommissioned their weapons, Sinn Fein had to revise their terminology and adapt their arguments.

Indeed, there have been several revisions of the strategy, with the current focus being on presenting their cultural demands as "language rights". Moreover, they want their rights written into law in an Irish Language Act, with an Irish Language Commissioner to enforce it.

Sinn Fein made those demands a "red-line" issue and collapsed Stormont in order to get their way. That shows how important it is to the Sinn Fein project.

They regard an Irish Language Act as more important than the health service, schools, the economy and everything else.

For that reason alone, if for no other, culture, language and identity have to be treated as matters of importance for the unionist parties and the unionist people. Saying "no" is not enough.

Too often, in the past, unionism was reactive and allowed Sinn Fein to frame the cultural debate. Today, unionism needs to be proactive and develop a coherent cultural strategy of its own.

It may be late in the day, but better late than never. Now is the time for that work to be done.

Belfast Telegraph


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