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Debate over Irish language is central to power-sharing talks in Northern Ireland

Protestors outside the High Court in Belfast in February 2017 calling for an Irish Language Act. Niall Carson/PA Wire

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) now finds itself kingmaker at Westminster after Theresa May’s election gamble backfired. Back home in Belfast, talks are due to restart at Stormont to find a way through Northern Ireland’s political impasse caused by a breakdown in the devolved power-sharing government and subsequent election. The deadline for an agreement is June 29.

One of the central sticking points of the talks is the Irish language – also known as Irish Gaelic – and whether there is a need for an Irish Language Act for Northern Ireland. In late May, thousands marched in Belfast in support of an Irish Language Act. The issue, bound up with divisions in society over national identity, has divided political parties which draw their support from the nationalist and unionist communities. The two unionist parties, the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party, have been reluctant to support an Act whereas the nationalist parties, Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, have traditionally been in favour of legislation.

The decision to speak Irish in Northern Ireland has been interpreted as a cultural weapon used by nationalists to exacerbate sectarian division. It is also seen by some as a pointless minority language: they think that speaking Irish is a hobby which may be pursued by individuals but which should place no undue compunction on the state.

For those who hold this view, the state provides ample support by means of its financial contribution to Foras na Gaeilge, the all-island body for the promotion of Irish, and through its commitment to the facilitation of Irish-medium education.

But among those who speak Irish (approximately 185,000 people according to the 2011 census) the lack of adequate support for the language’s preservation and transmission to new generations is seen as political. They believe that the language has been neglected by the Northern Ireland state and that this has been fed by a perception that the language is subversive and “belongs” only to nationalists.

A shared history

Taking a broader historical perspective, the facts are much more complicated. The connection between the Irish language and politics precedes the foundation of Northern Ireland in 1921. It has been spoken within both the Protestant and Catholic communities since the Plantation of Ulster in 1609, and the revival of the language in the 19th century is indebted to both Protestants and Catholics.

Elements of Irish-language culture (particularly local place-names) are cherished equally across the whole community in Northern Ireland, irrespective of religious and political differences, and constitute part of a shared heritage. This has been evident in a renewed interest in the language among members of the Protestant community in Belfast, in particular.

The European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, ratified by the UK in 2001, recognises “the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity”.

The British government, in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, promised to introduce an Irish Language Act in Northern Ireland – yet the legislation which followed in 2007 that gave legal effect to the agreement made no mention of such an act. Language legislation was devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly at that point.

Provision was then made in the St Andrews Act for an amendment to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, obliging the executive committee of the Northern Irish Assembly to “adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language”. Since then, cross-party support which is required for an Irish Language Act has not been forthcoming, nor has the executive agreed a strategy.

The devolved Department for Communities has produced strategies to “enhance and protect the development of the Irish Language”, and Ulster-Scots (a distinct language closely related to Scots and introduced into Ulster in the aftermath of the Plantation). But the minister in charge of the department is empowered to continue or discontinue elements of support in line with his or her political priorities. In late 2016, the decision by the communities minister, Paul Givan, of the DUP, to withdraw funding from the Líofa programme for learners of Irish, led to public outcry and contributed to the current political crisis in Stormont. The minister subsequently reviewed his decision and reinstated the funding.

In March 2017, a judicial review by the High Court found the Northern Ireland Executive had failed to adopt a strategy for Irish.

Stalemate at Stormont. Niall Carson/PA Wire

The case for an Act

Legal protection of a language helps to remove it from the domain of confrontational party politics. The introduction of an Irish Language Act would mean that Northern Ireland would no longer be in breach of national and international agreements regarding language rights and the personal preferences of individual ministers would no longer dictate the level of support the language receives. An agreed legal framework for Irish would also mean that those who do not wish to engage with the language would be protected, irrespective of fluctuations in political governance and electoral politics. Irish could not be enforced in education or any other sphere to the point where it becomes an issue of compulsion or obligation on the citizen.

An Irish Language Act would also be key to enabling the transmission of Irish to younger generations by providing for the use of the language in as many domains as possible in public life, for example in dealings with public bodies and local government.

While there is a demand for an Irish Language Act, this demand should be met with an Act that endeavours to depoliticise the language and to garner the greatest possible agreement from across the community. An Act will function best in a context of consensus: good will and generosity must exist in order for it to achieve its goals.

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