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Brian M Walker: Unionists should be more self-confident... Irish will never replace English in Northern Ireland

Talks to rebuild the power-sharing Executive are at a critical stage. It would be absurd if language issues brought about their collapse, writes Brian M Walker

Language barrier: Irish Language Act supporters protest outside Stormont
Language barrier: Irish Language Act supporters protest outside Stormont

Brian M Walker

We are now in the final countdown in efforts to re-establish our power-sharing Executive. One issue still to be resolved is the question of the Irish language. Failure to deal satisfactorily with this issue could lead to the collapse of these efforts - with dire consequences.

Such an impasse is completely unnecessary. It is possible to find a resolution on the language issue. We need to learn from what went wrong in earlier talks and we need 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 airways and in the press there was heated, often sensational, argument over the Irish language issue. Some language enthusiasts urged 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 fatally undermined the negotiations which were going on between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

We must avoid these mistakes. The subject must be approached sensibly and without overheated arguments. Some compromise will be necessary from all sides.

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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.

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 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.

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.

The question of the use of Irish in the courts has been a matter of controversy. Thanks to an Irish Act of 1737, only English can be used in Northern Ireland courts. The original purpose of this and similar acts in Britain was to ban the use of Latin and French. It was then extended to Irish.

Such acts have been repealed elsewhere, but not here. Nonetheless, a wide range of languages, including Portuguese and Polish, can be and are regularly spoken in our courts, but not Irish. In spite of the 1737 Act, this is allowed because of EU and human rights law.

Because the persons involved speak no or little English (which would not be true for Irish speakers), they are entitled to a translator.

It would not be a major step to extend this right to Irish speakers. The 1737 Act is an anomaly today.

In the courts, a translation service should be available when required, but not a full court service in Irish, not least because even in the south this has proved 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 is controversial. In Wales, some 20% of the population speak Welsh, which justifies a robust language act and all parties support it. In Scotland, a much smaller number speak Gaelic, rather like in Northern Ireland, but in Scotland the matter is non-controversial, with full party backing.

Clearly our circumstances are different from these two countries and an Irish Language Act would need to be tailored to our own situation. Such an Act could incorporate and build on provisions already available for the Irish language.

In the unsuccessful negotiations last year, it was suggested that language legislation could embrace not just Irish, but also Ulster Scots and other language and cultural matters. Such an imaginative approach could be explored 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 of most of the world (thanks to our American cousins).

In September 2018, the Irish Chief Justice, Frank Clark, 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, British citizens enjoy good provisions for minority languages.

The existence of language Acts in Scotland and Wales is a good reason why we should have a language act here.

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 essential that unionists should show respect for the language.

Also, it is critical that republican/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.

Talks to rebuild our power-sharing Executive are at a critical stage. It would be ridiculous if the issue of the Irish language brought about their collapse.

This is especially so when we realise that the means to deal with this matter are already largely in place, or can be introduced at relatively little cost.

Our political leaders must urge moderation and even some compromise among their constituents. Sensible new arrangements, based on existing and improved practice, should be presented as a win for pragmatic good sense. That way we all will win.

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, was published recently by The History Press Ireland

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