23 August 2007 Edition
Irish Language : Open up the debate
Irish — Unionists have nothing to fear
Unionists have nothing to fear from Irish language legislation. That was the message Sinn Féin MLA and spokesperson on language and culture, Francie Brolly wanted to convey when he spoke to An Phoblacht about recent controversy around a proposed Irish language bill in the North.
Last week, Stormont First Minister and Unionist leader Ian Paisley, insisted the DUP would not support any legislation recognising the rights of Irish speakers. As part of his 100 days in office address to party colleagues, Paisley said, “this was a proposal made by the two governments (British and Irish at the St. Andrews talks) and was never agreed to or even discussed with us”.
Speaking on Radio Ulster, the DUP’s anti-Irish campaigner Nelson McCausland, reiterated his party leader’s position by dismissing the possibility of any recognition of the rights of Irish speakers with a blanket claim that the cost would be prohibitive.
“Unfortunately the straightforward issue of language rights, a non-controversial issue in Wales, Scotland, the South of Ireland and throughout Europe, an issue which should be judged in the same light as any other expression of human rights, has been hijacked by the outworkings of unionist rivalry,” says Francie Brolly.
“DUP politicians are talking up their determination to block any recognition of the Irish language in a rather misguided attempt at demonstrating their status within unionist hegemony,” says Brolly.
According to Ian Paisley “changes in the decision making process in the Assembly” secured by the DUP at St. Andrews ensured Irish language legislation would require unionist support in the Executive.
Responding to the DUP claim UUP deputy leader Danny Kennedy described it as “strange to hear the DUP suddenly toughening up their stance on the Irish Language Act”. Particularly when, according to Kennedy, the UUP had the matter of a unionist veto all sown up in “the Belfast Agreement”.
Kennedy told the Belfast Newsletter, “in this set-up we had an Ulster Unionist minister with a veto over all business”. Curiously the UUP deputy leader went on to equate a “unionist veto” with being “truly accountable”.
“It is as if the status of unionism is being inextricably linked to the ferocity of its anti-Irish stance. Whenever the DUP start talking up St Andrews and the UUP the ‘Belfast Agreement’ it’s a sure sign the two rival parties are engaging in rhetorical fisticuffs,” says Brolly.
“I’m not sure who the DUP and UUP hope to impress but the issue of language rights is really a paper tiger. Unionists have nothing to fear from Irish language legislation and any suggestion otherwise is not only misleading but also appeals to lowest of sectarian instincts,” says Francie.
“According to the latest census 75,000 people within the Six Counties “speak, read, write and understand Irish” with a further 167,000 people who said they had “some knowledge of Irish”. It is also a growing language. Between 1991 and 2001 (the date of the last census) Irish speakers increased by 18%. The increasing demand for Irish medium education is an indication of the value attached to the language by many families in the North.”
“These are the plain facts as opposed to many of the myths anti-Irish campaigners are currently circulating. One of the most worrying distortions is the claim that, “more people speak Chinese than Irish”.
“This is a cynical ploy designed to obstruct the rights of Irish speakers rather than motivated by any genuine concern for the Chinese speaking community of which there are around 8,000 in the North. The rights of the Chinese community are not dependent upon the denial of rights to the Irish speaking community. To suggest otherwise is to create an illusion of division where none exists,” says Brolly.
“All languages deserve respect and all language communities should have access to services. But the Irish language has a very particular relationship with the island of Ireland. It is an indigenous language with an unbroken historical line of being spoken here for over 2,000 years.”
“It is part of a common culture and language that has been shared with Gaelic Scotland for 1,500 years. The names of the majority of our mountains, rivers, towns and streets are rooted in the Irish language. The issue of the Irish language is not just a nationalist issue. The Irish language is part of the cultural heritage of all of us,” says Francie.
The Irish language’s particular relationship with the island of Ireland has been recognised by the European Charter for Regional and Minority languages. The British government signed up to this charter in 2001. The Committee of Experts who oversees the implementation of the charter has been consistently critical of the British government’s approach to Irish language rights.
“There has been a deliberate attempt to inflate the likely cost of affording language rights to Irish speakers while measures to address the historical exclusion of Irish speakers has been presented as an unnecessary burden on the ordinary taxpayer. But like many of the arguments deployed by anti Irish campaigners this is also spurious,” says Francie.
“For example, it has been suggested that bilingual signage would be very expensive but signage is routinely replaced and a simple undertaking to introduce bilingual signage, where there was a demand for Irish, during the normal course of replacement would not incur any additional cost.”
“But where extra costs are incurred, the bottom line has to be that Irish speakers are also taxpayers and have been paying towards their own exclusion for decades. All the Irish speaking community is asking is to be treated equally in terms of resources with the Welsh language community,” says Francie.
“Another spurious argument encouraged by anti-Irish campaigners is the notion that Irish is divisive and exclusive. Unlike the Orange Order, which has a specific anti Catholic qualification, there is nothing divisive or exclusive inherent in the Irish language. The Irish language is not confined exclusively to any religious, ethnic or racial group. It is not religion, race or ethnicity that defines the community of Irish speakers but language,” says Francie.
“Not everyone wants to speak Irish or learn to speak Irish anymore than every A level student wants to study physics. But surely it would be strange if by exercising that choice, a physics student was deemed divisive and exclusive. Irish speakers aren’t asking for special treatment just parity of treatment in an environment which respects the fact that people exercise different choices.”
“The notion of ‘consensus’ is also being deployed as a means of undermining the rights of Irish speakers. Attempts to force the Irish speaking community to seek the permission of anti-Irish campaigners is as sensible as insisting asylum seekers win the approval of the British National Front. Human rights, and the exercise of human rights, transcends consensus.
“Unionists have nothing to fear from the Irish language, Irish speakers or the Irish language community. A former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau described language rights as basically two things, the right to speak and the right to learn. This encapsulates what Irish speakers are seeking in the North. There’s nothing scary about that.”
“The British government has already given a commitment to ensure language rights and there is a mechanism to go back to the British if this is thwarted. But we’d rather not. If unionists have concerns about Irish language rights they need to come forward and engage with us so that we can all work towards finding ways to resolving those concerns. Let’s dispel the myths and open up a real debate,” says Francis.