Irish Examiner view: Irish language should have its place in the daily life of the North

Impressive turnout in Belfast in support of the Irish language law
Irish Examiner view: Irish language should have its place in the daily life of the North

Protesters at the Irish language rights demonstration in Belfast city centre. Picture: Bayview Media/Dream Dearg/PA Wire

There was impressive turnout in Belfast in support of the Irish language law. The campaign network An Dream Dearg “the red group” is demanding “language recognition, respect and rights” and legislation along the lines of the 1993 Welsh Language Act. To that extent, supporters should be pushing against an open door.

Legislation has already been promised, although previous plans have stalled in the fractious climate of the North. In his visit last week, British premier Boris Johnson pledged to deliver a portmanteau cultural package in the coming weeks which would include an “office of identity and cultural expression”, as well as an Irish language commissioner and a commissioner to develop language, arts and literature “associated with the Ulster Scots/Ulster British tradition”.

The 17,000 marchers who made their way through the city streets chanted “tír gan teanga, tír gan anam”, which translates as “a country without a language is a country without a soul”. 

While some unionists oppose legislation, saying that an Irish Language Act would “open up employment opportunities exclusively to people who speak Irish, meaning that non-Irish speakers will be disadvantaged”, the general impetus through the EU has been to support linguistic diversity.

Throughout the EU, up to 50m people speak one of its 60 regional or minority languages that are regarded as helping to form “humanity’s intangible cultural heritage”. Globally, about 97% of the population speak about 4% of the world’s languages — principally English, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Indonesian, Arabic, Swahili, and Hindi — while only about 3% speak the remaining 96%.

The Unesco Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger estimates that almost 4% of the world’s languages have disappeared since 1950.

In his magisterial play Translations Brian Friel wrote that “it can happen that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of ... fact”. 

It is a justifiable request that the Irish language should have its place in the daily life of the North. Practically everyone agrees on it; the Irish should be in no lesser position than the Welsh. Let us hope that it doesn’t get caught up in a tedious to-and-fro of political positioning.

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