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Tom Kelly: Lack of generosity on Irish language got us into this impasse... and only generosity of spirit will get us out

Some unionists are as guilty as some members of Sinn Fein for the so-called 'weaponising' of Irish, argues Tom Kelly

Janet Muller of Pobal campaigns at a protest in 2018 over Stormont’s failure to introduce an Irish language strategy
Janet Muller of Pobal campaigns at a protest in 2018 over Stormont’s failure to introduce an Irish language strategy

Tom Kelly

Like many a past pupil of the Abbey Christian Brothers in the 1970s and 1980s, I endured rather than enjoyed my three years learning Irish. And yet my school had a flourishing drama group, which produced many fine shows "as Gaelige" (in Irish). In fact, many of my friends won awards for their high standards in the language, particularly at events like Scor na Og and the Feis.

Newry still has one of the largest Feisanna (a festival of Irish traditional music/Irish dancing/speech and drama) attracting a staggering 14,000 entries annually.

This Feis, from its inception, had cross-community support, with the Hodgett family (owners of the Newry Reporter) being one of the earliest backers.

Culture, handled sensitively and with goodwill, is not political. It is not some form of propaganda. Language and the oral tradition is a key part of ethnicity, history and, indeed, family.

That said, not withstanding my reluctance to study Irish beyond three years, I love the Irish language, particularly when used in song and in poetry.

It's a beautiful language. As a writer I frequently use Irish phrases because they can sometimes be more literal and descriptive than English. I can even order a cup of tea in Irish. But there is no fluency. I dip in and dip out like a borrower.

It is quite upsetting and disturbing to find the Irish language among the sticking points in the current inter-party talks.

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Those who promote the Irish language are equally disturbed to find themselves in their current position.

The failure to provide an Irish Language Act primarily rests at the respective premierships of Blair, Brown and Cameron.

But Sinn Fein did not press the case much either during those years, even though now it is one of their central demands.

Michael D Higgins
Michael D Higgins

The DUP's short-sightedness on the issue is unsurprising, but the pettiness over Irish language grants was pathetic.

Lack of generosity got us to this impasse and only generosity will get us out.

"Ar scatha a cheile a mhaireann na daoine" were the beautiful words which Michael D Higgins used at his inauguration as Irish President. Loosely translated, they mean, "under the shelter of each other people survive/prosper".

It is a message that should have resonance in Northern Ireland. Our politicians have missed the spirit of it for 10 years.

We give shelter to each other - and that includes our linguistic heritage.

In Northern Ireland we may talk about two communities or identities, but in reality the place is too small for tribal divisions to subsume everything.

Access to affordable healthcare, mental well-being, a good education, a right to a home, opportunity for jobs and even happiness should be available and within the reach of all. These are things we hold in common.

We provide these to each other. We are all interdependent.

Put another way, Northern Ireland would simply not work if people carried their tribal differences into the workplace. Whether it's the barista in the coffee shop or the nurse in the hospital, identity, faith, sexuality, gender, colour, ethnicity or politics is completely irrelevant.

We live in the shelter of one another and it is only under that collective shelter do all our people prosper.

As the possibility of a political deal moves ever-closer, there is already the smell of fudge wafting through the corridors of Stormont. The greatest part of that fudge will be around the prospect of an Irish Language Act.

In all probability there won't be a stand-alone Irish Language Act. There are Language Acts in Scotland and Wales in order to protect the learning and appreciation of those native languages.

The refusal to adopt a practice widely available in other devolved regions of the United Kingdom is downright daft, especially by politicians claiming to sell the benefits of being in that same United Kingdom.

Some unionists are as guilty as some members of Sinn Fein for the so-called "weaponising" of the Irish language. Talk about "cultural audits" by some unionists are nothing more than stalling tactics to thwart the development and recognition of the Irish language.

The "amadan" (fool) who compared using Irish words to firing bullets in the struggle for Irish freedom was to use an expression, "Ag labhairt as a asal". All he has achieved is providing ammunition for those unionists who want to kill off the Irish language.

As for the Orange Order's unhelpful intervention: butt out. Advocating recognition and promotion of Orange culture is one thing, but trying to demonise or thwart another culture is, frankly, none of their business.

Make no mistake, the Irish language is as native to Coalisland as it is to Carlow or Connswater. It has, however, suffered many revivals over the past 200 years. It belongs as much to Presbyterians as it does to Catholics.

A recent LucidTalk opinion poll suggested a third of DUP supporters would not countenance an Irish Language Act and a similar percentage of Sinn Fein voters wouldn't agree to re-entering Stormont without one. But we have been here before.

And unless both parties tell their intransigent Luddites to suck it up, these talks will falter. No one wants that.

Irish language activists have made their case with conviction, but they, too, are pragmatic and want the politicians to reach a reasonable position.

That most likely means some form of cultural Act/commissioner or office to protect the Irish language; it won't mean dual signage.

It is pure crassness to say there are more Chinese or Polish speakers in Northern Ireland than Irish. The same puerile argument could be made about more Punjabi speakers in Glasgow than Scots Gaelic speakers. Culturally speaking, unionism owns as much of the Irish language as anyone else in Ireland.

Remember at the core of this column is the proverb "Ar scatha a cheile a mhaireann na daoine". Surely, it is not beyond the capabilities of politicians of all persuasions to protect the heritage of what Seamus Mallon termed "a shared place called home"?

Tom Kelly is a writer and commentator

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