I had a short cameo on Tuesday’s BBC Talkback programme concerning the case for an “Irish Language Act”. My point was that the whole discussion is somewhat pointless as we don’t know what would be in such an Act! There is a world of difference between, for example, the Gaelic Language Act in Scotland (which more or less confirms services already provided for Irish in Northern Ireland) and the Welsh Language Act in Wales (which places all kinds of requirements even on private businesses).
I would have added two more things, given time. Firstly, the Sinn Fein MLA on the programme said that an Irish Language Act was a “core demand of the Nationalist community“. This may be, but it is exactly that sort of phrasing which plays into the instinctive majority view among Unionists and indeed probably even Progressives that there should be no such Act because it would be ostensibly sectarian. It was also suggested by the POBAL representative, who was otherwise very reasonable, that an Act would mean “more jobs for Irish speakers” – something which is really problematic, at least at this stage of development, for all kinds of reasons (not least that it would favour one “religious background” given the segregated nature of our schooling).
Secondly, I was very concerned as several callers saying that they wished only to speak English “because we’re in the UK and we’re British“, a line I hear alarmingly often. I was concerned because it shows a deep ignorance about what it is to be British, which itself I think touches the core of why so many Unionists are so insecure about their identity. Britishness is an innately multi-cultural identity, by definition – you have to be “British-and”, you can’t just be “British”. The development of the Welsh language, albeit from a much stronger position that Irish (or for that matter Gaelic of Scots) is in now, is one of the best examples of minority language promotion in Europe – by the UK. There was an MSP on BBC Talkback explaining how his Gaelic linguistic identity in no way contravened his Scottish and British national identity. It is an utter nonsense for so many Unionists to cling to a singular “British” identity when everyone else who claims that identity recognises immediately and obviously that it is multi-cultural and diverse.
(It was, after all, the UK which signed the European Charter and gave Irish additional protection and support – Ireland, out of interest, is not a signatory.)
As for an “Irish Language Act”, I’ve always instinctively favoured a “Languages Act” confirming the UK’s and Northern Ireland’s Charter obligations and adding rights for those who wish to speak Irish in education and broadcasting. This would still, by my reckoning, be cost-neutral. What’s not to like?!