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.