The Irish language was one of the bloodiest battle-fields in the campaign for today’s Northern Ireland Assembly elections.
The cancellation of bursaries for less advantaged people to go to the Donegal Gaeltacht by the DUP’s minister for communities Paul Givan was nasty and it hardened Sinn Féin’s resolve to push for the election.
DUP leader Arlene Foster’s comment on the passing an Irish Language Act was outrageous: “If you feed a crocodile it will come back asking for more.”
But there’s an uncomfortable grain of truth in her comment that we’d could be looking for a Polish Language Act next as more people in Northern Ireland speak Polish than speak Irish.
There are no native speakers of Irish in Northern Ireland and the nationalist demand for a language act to protect Irish speakers is crazy.
No one in Northern Ireland needs the “right” to speak his or her native language and no one is placed at a linguistic disadvantage by speaking English.
To pretend anyone is, as does the argument for an Irish Language Act made by Sinn Féin and the SDLP, is to play politics with the language. Playing politics with the language will destroy what’s left of it. It could destroy the peace process too.
In their introduction to a proposed Irish Language Act the advocacy group, Pobal, complains that “Irish remains the only primary indigenous language in these islands that is not subject to specific domestic legislative protection”.
The last record of Irish spoken by a native in Northern Ireland was on Rathlin Island in 1985 but most of the Irish was gone from Northern Ireland by the early 20th century.
Irish is spoken by some 4,000 people in nationalist communities, particularly in west Belfast, where a thriving Irish-language cultural scene centres on the Culturlann McAdam-OFiach.
All of these people speak better English than Irish. To frame protection for the language in the context of language rights, as speakers of French are protected in Quebec, is ridiculous because Irish is no longer a language native to any part of Northern Ireland.
But Pobal is taking the Quebecois “rights-based” approach, consciously differentiating its act from those protecting Scots Gaelic or Welsh. Sinn Féin and the SDLP are willing accomplices.
Under the proposed Acht na Gaeilge Tuaisceart Éireann the North would have its own language commissioner to whom complaints could be made if a person felt his or her legal right to use Irish was impugned.
These rights would include doing business with all government and local government departments through Irish, having access to all government publications in Irish and most ridiculous still, simultaneous translation during public meetings.
Think for a moment of what is proposed here. A native English-speaker addresses in Irish a room-full of fluent-English speakers wearing headphones so they can hear the simultaneous translation into English provided by a third party. A third party paid by the State.
Of course the DUP is banging on about the money but I don’t care about it as much as I care about the language. Using the Irish language in the way proposed in the act will make it an agent of division in an already divided society.
Several DUP candidates have made this point about the act and they are right. As Nelson McCausland wrote in the Ulster News Letter: “It would simply put more firepower into the Sinn Féin cultural arsenal.” And he quotes a Sinn Féin Culture Office from 1982: “Every phrase you learn is a bullet in the freedom struggle.”
A language act was promised in the St Andrews Agreement of 2006 and it would surely be possible to depart from the “rights-based” approach and genuinely encourage use of the language.
All signs bearing place names of Gaelic origin should carry their Irish names, both North and South. I’m not so sure about the “Parad Shidni” approach to names like Sydney Parade, however.
Irish-medium education should be available to all who want it and Irish should be taught in all schools.
In addition, cultural activities in Irish and classes for adults should be funded which would stand a chance of making the language attractive both inside and outside the nationalist community.
But you cannot revive a language by legislation. Indeed, the number of native speakers of the language in the Republic has tanked since our own language act was brought in in 2003.
Pobal’s assertion that “international experience” suggests it may take a generation for people to make full use of government services through Irish — but they will in the end — is bonkers.
The idea of reviving the Irish language as the first language of the Irish nation was always delusional.
UCC academic Aidan Doyle asserts in his recent history of the language that Irish was at breaking point as early as 1750 and was too far gone to be revived by the time the Gaelic League was founded.
He also considers that the decline of Irish mirrored the spread of literacy, as native speakers including one Daniel O’Connell tended to write only in English. The idiocy of today’s translations of all official documents into leaden Irish which no-one reads is obvious.
The three dialects of the Gaeltachtaí are the last remnants of a stunningly beautiful language. What passes for Irish either in those official documents or on the Falls Road Gaeltacht Quarter is like an English necklace threaded with beads of Irish. The structures and syntax of Gaelic are gone.
Before we get too maudlin let’s remember that Irish has always been one of our languages, not our only one. We don’t know what sounds were uttered by the worshippers at Newgrange.
In Dublin, Cork and Belfast Irish has not been the dominant language since at least the 12th century, if not before. Our linguistic history includes French, Norse, Ulster Scots and our linguistic present includes many languages, Polish among them.
To state that “Irish is the historical national language of Ireland”, as Pobal does, is to make a decision, not record a fact.
The many insults which will be hurled at me will include the fact that I don’t recognise the importance of the use the language by northern nationalists as a response to the suppression of their identity. I do now and I applaud it. It is a creative response.
But the legal defence of the “right” to live a parallel existence through a learned language would turn Irish into a green sash to be worn marching to a tribal drum-beat.
And it would not delay the day when citizens in the North have sweeter music to listen to as they go to the polls.