Dealing with the Irish Language in NI

The Irish Language is in that unfortunate space in Northern Ireland where reactions to it are emotional – often flavoured by “community background” – rather than rational. Cases around it are made to suit the existing narrative rather than on a genuinely reasoned basis; and anyone stepping outside the “expected norm” of their own “side” (most obviously the East Belfast Mission at Skainos) is castigated mercilessly (but often unreasonably) by that “side”.

It is worth noting that this is rarely done by stating outright untruths, but rarely by emphasising the truths which suit our own narrative. Thus the fact few speak it as a native language in Northern Ireland can lead to it being easily dismissed as “dead” (even though it is all around us); or the fact that Presbyterians were central to its revival in the late 19th century can be hailed as “proof of an inherent cross-community interest” (even though this has not been meaningfully apparent for over a century). As too often in Northern Ireland, we find facts being made to suit a case, not a case being made to suit the facts!

For all that, there are actually two core ways of looking at the development of the Irish Language (and the government’s/tax payer’s role in it). It is worth looking at them in the (no doubt vain) hope of a rational compromise.

Firstly, the argument goes that the Irish Language is unique to the island of Ireland; that if we don’t take action to protect it we’ll lose it (because only we can save it); and that it is all around us (not least in place names) and part of all of us (regardless of background). On those grounds, we in Northern Ireland should play a full and comprehensive role in its development (and, particularly relevantly right now, we should certainly not be deprived of that role by funding for development organisations being shifted in its entirety to Dublin and the Gaeltacht).

Secondly, the argument goes that the Irish Language is a minority community interest, effectively a hobby; that it is not the government’s (tax payer’s) role to fund hobbies; and that if people want to develop it that is well and good, but they may do so in their own time at their own expense because public money is needed for schools and hospitals. On those grounds, it is dubious whether there should even be a “Department of Culture”, English should be the sole language of administration at all times (not least because it’s cheaper that way), and if anything Polish should be the second language as it has more native speakers.

At a purely rational level, I can absolutely see both of those arguments. However, the issue then becomes consistency. Frankly (and almost crudely), if you take the first argument you have to deliver a meaningful cross-community basis to all Irish Language activity (which means getting out of “silos” such as using the language to “mark Republican areas”, and removing some of the more fanciful notions about the language such as its alleged “ancientness”); if you take the second argument to its logical conclusion, the Orange Order should pay for its own marches (including security arrangements, notifying residents of road closures, post-parade clean-up and so on).

I do tend, personally, towards the first of the above (I personally am willing to pay something towards protection of a language on the grounds of cultural value even if I don’t speak it); but I respect those who tend towards the latter – as long as we are all consistent! Therefore, it would be helpful at least if we could shift the debate on to more rational ground, and then recognise the logical conclusions on other aspects of culture of the position we choose to take.


5 thoughts on “Dealing with the Irish Language in NI

  1. I tend towards the latter argument; I don’t believe in any official languages of a state, nor do any need promotion/protection. If I were to move to the Isle of Skye, for example, it would behoove me to acquire some Scottish Gaelic, even though all there speak English plainly. This is regardless of any state financial support for Scottish Gaelic. Reciprocally, Polish arrivals here know they will need to speak English to get by. As I would if I’m in France.

    BTW, consistently I also believe Orange lodges (and Hibernian societies) should put up a bond deposit for their parades, as is the practice in organising parades in the USA.

  2. Scots Anorak says:

    I’m tempted to interpret the “dealing with” of the post title as referring to the problems of the Alliance Party on this issue, since the definition of liberalism produced by a process of triangulation in Northern Ireland (with a disproportionate contribution from small-u unionists) may differ greatly from what is viewed as objectively liberal elsewhere. “Appositely safeguarding and cherishing” might have been a preferable phrase.

    The Alliance view on Irish suffers from having been formulated in a bubble and based on a set of false assumptions, chief among them being that the nationalism comes first and the language follows as a political tool, when it should be obvious to most observers that the two interests very often come from a common origin. Even if not all Republican or Nationalist politicians speak Irish well, the truth is that Irish-speakers are an important constituency for them. There is an assumption, too, that people learn Irish to annoy Unionists. I don’t know anyone who would spend ten years learning a difficult language in order to score political points when that could be done much more effectively with, for example, flags. Alliance has a problem with Irish-language signage because it is fixated about neutral space, so much so that it fails to come to the logical conclusion that *no one* is disadvantaged by the addition of a second language as long as the first language is left in situ. Currently Belfast City Council requires two-thirds of residents (not respondents) to support bilingual street signs before they can be erected. I can think of nothing more likely to promote an association of Irish (or Ulster Scots) with one side of the community than that rule. Why not require only 33%? Why not 20%? Bilingualism is always about the human rights of the minority community, so why should it be subject to a majoritarian veto?

    There are many people in Scotland who articulate philistine views about Scottish Gaelic. They same people probably complain about government money going on classical music. The problem in Northern Ireland (particularly for a split-the-difference party) is that the situation is polarised. The way out of that bind is for the Alliance to study what is normal in other countries. I recently gave a talk at Holywood Library at which someone asked me whether the appearance of bilingual signs at Scottish train stations was a sign of nationalism in the run-up to the independence referendum. I made very clear that it had no particular connection with constitutional nationalism and that Gaelic enjoyed cross-party support. For that to happen in Northern Ireland we have to get Irish out of the ghetto.

    • I think there are a few problems there.

      Firstly, the post isn’t about the Alliance position, or any position; it is an appeal to reflect on the logic of any position taken.

      Secondly, the most I would say in criticism of the Alliance position is they haven’t given it a lot of thought!

      Thirdly, it is simply ludicrous to suggest that not having a street sign in your second language (one the vast majority on the street don’t speak well, almost invariably) is a breach of “human rights”. (Arresting someone for giving his address in Irish – now *that’s* an abuse of human rights!)

      Actually the two thirds of residents strikes me as a reasonable compromise. A lot of people really aren’t all that bothered by the issue – and there’s no harm in noting that, either!

      • Scots Anorak says:

        One can argue about whether linguistic rights are human rights, and I’m sure that there are situations (e.g. melting-pot cities in sub-Saharan Africa) where it simply isn’t practical to cater for everyone. I don’t think Northern Ireland is one of them, though. There are only three autochthonous speech varieties here, after all. It’s also simply untrue to argue, as some people do, that there are no native speakers of Irish in Northern Ireland. They may not be native speakers of traditional Gaeltacht Irish, but in any given year there are literally thousands of children being raised or educated through the medium of Irish.

        The “two-thirds of residents” rule is currently subject to a court challenge, and I could see it being declared illegal, either because of the high percentage required or because it applies to residents rather than respondents (thus a dead, hospitalised or holidaying resident is taken to have voted “no”). Personally, far from viewing it as a “reasonable compromise”, I think it’s reminiscent of the worst gerrymandering of the old Londonderry Corporation, and it’s only there because the relevant legislation bizarrely allows councils to set their own tests on the issue. Its outworking is to associate Irish with the most homogeneously Republican areas, both because of the rule itself and because nationalist-controlled councils may require 50% of respondents instead of 67% of residents. Presumably, if it’s legal to ask for 67% in favour, it would also be legal to ask for only 33%.

        I’m not sure that the situation of street signs is all that different from giving one’s address in Irish; ultimately it all boils down to services from the state. The two issues are linked in that the process for securing a bilingual street sign is the same process to determine the official Irish or Scots form of an address. I’d have considerably more sympathy for someone peacefully campaigning for bilingual signage than for someone, say, who didn’t speak good Irish but insisted on giving their address in Irish to annoy the cop arresting them.

        Ultimately, I think this all boils down to the question of what kind of society one would like to see here. There are many good people in the Alliance Party, NI21 and to a certain extent the UUP who think that Northern Ireland should be like England. That’s great, because England isn’t sectarian. However, when it comes to what is actually politically feasible and culturally desirable, they would quite obviously do better to look to Wales or Scotland. In those countries, bilingual signage is part of everyday life.

  3. […] detailed and practical debate about the delivery of an Irish Language Act; […]

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