Irish Language Acts and debating things which don’t exist…

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?!


8 thoughts on “Irish Language Acts and debating things which don’t exist…

  1. Scots Anorak says:

    While Gaelic in Scotland isn’t particularly associated with nationalism, we should recognise that Welsh in Wales definitely is, among both traditional and elective speakers, so there is not necessarily anything unique about Irish. Rather than criticise the language movement because its proponents are seen to have a particular political view, it would be better to acknowledge that cultural and political nationalism often share a common core — while of course remembering that there is nothing unavoidable about that and that everyone should be welcomed. Scotland is in my view a special case because of its historic multilingualism and because much nationalist sentiment is concentrated among Lowland Scots rather than Gaelic activists.

    To rail against an Irish Language Act because it creates jobs for speakers is missing the point; the actual number of jobs would be an insignificant percentage of all jobs — i.e. would not of itself result in Catholic employment overtaking or even equalling Protestant employment — and Irish-speakers are generally happy for Ulster Scots to be promoted as a quid pro quo, despite the fact that much of the money earmarked for it is spent either on a form of the speech variety not recognised by native speakers or, indeed, on something else entirely. With the good work done by Linda Ervine and others, I think that there is in any case a good chance that we may also be about to see a revival of Irish among Protestants.

    I am well aware of the pressures of public spending, and while those should be borne in mind, my own feeling is that an Irish Language Act that was cost-neutral would not be worth the paper it was written on and might well have the effect of making new initiatives less likely. Just as there is a link between fighting poverty and how much one is willing to spend on benefits, there is a link between the survival of minoritised languages and how much one is willing to spend on their promotion. While the sums of money involved will be real, however, they are still likely to be fairly insignificant in the wider scheme of things.

  2. “his 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.”

    I have written a number of times that that is precisely why many Irish speakers don’t consider ‘progressives’ to be so.

    Scratch the surface of Alliance and the Green and there remains a Spenserist view of the Irish language.

    The leader of the Green Party is understood to be venomous in his opposition to the Irish language.

    Is this not an indication that these parties are as a tribal as any other?

    • No, I disagree fundamentally that their view is “Spenserist”.

      They are hugely *practical* parties with little time for nationalism or national identity. Therefore they see Irish as an aspect of culture but not as innate to people’s identity.

      • Tuairisceoir says:

        A politician’s answer.

        Surely Spenser would have simply seen himself in precisely the same light?

        Surely the actual ideological justifications are in fact irrelevant – the proof is in the pudding as you say in English.

        As I say, my sources in the Green Party indicate the situation is not how you describe it but let me tell you a tale related to me by a former Belfast City Councillor (PD) asked to go to an Alliance meeting a number of years ago – now I present this as an anecdote, not as an report.

        He said it was him on the stage as a representative of the Irish speaking community – he was along side a former republican prisoner and a former loyalist prisoner – both of whom where involved in a human being losing their lives – he was never involved in violence.

        He said to me that what grilling the others got was nothing to the grilling he was subjected to – he assured me.

        You’re last line – who are Alliance to say what is innate to people’s identity?

        Is English innate to your identity – I have no idea – how would I possibly?

        It does appear to be key to Aliiance’s Northern Ireland identity – but how would I know.


  3. L.B. says:

    I don’t know anything about the Act. But I would like to see Irish on street signs for instance. It would make the place seem more diverse. The Unionist stronghold mentality is lame. That said, I wouldn’t mind seeing Ulster Scots either. I look to Quebec, their suppression and fear of English and I shake my head. Language is a building block of cultural identity, and should be studied and preserved, not used to dominate.

    • I should clarify, there is a difference here between “street signs” (i.e. names of streets; where there are means of having Irish translations of the name – though note, translations) and “road signs”.

      We are too early for “road signs” (i.e. directional signs on main highways) by a long way. Instantly, Irish versions would be chalked out in Unionist areas, thus re-emphasising division. We already see this with “Londonderry”.

      There are ways around this, however. I wonder if new Council welcome signs or county welcome signs could be in Irish, for example; or at least contain an Irish language greeting. I doubt there would be much problem as people became used to them. Baby steps, I daresay, but let’s go with what works.

  4. Scots Anorak says:

    Street signs but not road signs sounds a lot like promoting ghettoisation and is hard to reconcile with the attitude taken by Alliance in the gay cake case. Or does the party believe that one prejudice is more logical than the other?

    • That doesn’t make sense. Is not putting up road signs in Turkish in Germany “prejudice”? Of course not. A truly ludicrous point, frankly.

      Whereas homosexuals are a long discriminated against minority.

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