11 October 2007 Edition
Anti-Irish campaign continues at Stormont
Later this month DUP Minister for Culture Edwin Poots is expected to make an announcement regarding the proposed Irish Language Act for the Six Counties. This would place a duty on public bodies with the most contact with the public to provide key services in Irish.
Such services would take account of the needs of Irish speakers, resources available and the ability of the bodies to deliver. The modest proposals are in line with internationally recognised obligations and measures already taken as routine in Scotland and Wales.
However in the North, the proposed act, which has already been subjected to a lengthy and widespread consultation process, has become the focus of blatant sectarianism and of anti Irish language discrimination by unionist politicians.
A UUP motion proposing to ban the use of Irish in the Assembly tabled on Tuesday, 9 October brought Irish medium school children and their teachers to the public gallery in Stormont. To coincide with the Assembly debate, Irish language organisation ACHT staged a protest outside.
UUP MLA David McNarry’s motion called on the Assembly to reject proposals for the Irish Language Act and called on the First and Deputy First Minister “to request all members of the Executive committee to recognise the sensitivities of using the Irish Language by refraining from its use in the Assembly Chamber, in committees and in written communications with MLAs”.
During the debate Sinn Féin party whip Carál Ní Chuilín described the UUP motion as divisive, offensive and sinister. “The issue of language rights is a non-controversial issue in Wales, Scotland, the South of Ireland and throughout Europe. The determination of unionist politicians to block any recognition of the Irish language is a misguided demonstration of anti Irish bigotry,” said Ní Chuilín.
The Sinn Féin MLA warned unionism against attempting to define itself by “how ferociously anti-Irish it is”.
“According to the last census 75,000 people within the six counties “speak, read, write and understand Irish” with an additional 167,000 people saying they had “some knowledge of Irish”. The increasing demand for Irish medium education is an indication of the value attached to the language by many families in the North,” she said.
“The Irish language has a very particular relationship with the people 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.
Heritage of all
“The names of our mountains, rivers, towns and streets are rooted in the Irish language. The Irish language is not just a nationalist issue it is part of the cultural heritage of us all. Indeed the Irish language is rooted within the proud tradition of Presbyterianism and we have many examples of Presbyterians who viewed the language as an integral part of our shared cultural heritage,” said Ní Chuilín.
“The British government signed up to the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages 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 historic exclusion of Irish speakers has been presented as an unnecessary burden on the taxpayer.
“But like many of these arguments that have been deployed by anti-Irish campaigners this is also spurious. Where 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,” said Ní Chuilín.
“The Irish language community is asking to be treated equally in terms of reference with the Welsh language community. We need to safeguard the rights of Irish speakers, those rights that were part of the Good Friday Agreement, which David McNarry’s party supported,” said the West Belfast MLA.
During the debate, David McNarry left the chamber on occasions when Sinn féin speakers were on their feet including Junior Minister Gerry Kelly. Kelly, making his response as Junior Minister in the Office of First and Deputy First Minister addressed the Assembly in Ullans/Ulster Scots and in Irish.
Alliance MLA and mayor of North Down Stephen Farry opened his remarks by addressing the DUP speaker, William Hay thus: “Go raibh maith agat a Cheann Chomhairle”. He also pointed out that on his chain of office the name Bangor appeared in the Irish form Beannchor.
David McNarry’s motion was defeated.
Over the last month some unionists have attempted to create tensions by re-branding support for the Irish language as “special treatment” and against the interests of the Protestant community and English speakers.
First it was suggested the decision by Sinn Féin Minister for Education Caitríona Ruane to close some schools in unionist areas because of falling rolls, a number are also being closed in nationalist areas, was directly linked to funding for a small number of Irish medium schools.
“Non-Irish speakers paying the price” a banner headline in the Belfast Newsletter declared. The report highlighted the fact that, while practice 11 plus exam papers printed in English could cost “under pressure parents and children” as much as “almost £15”, Irish translations were accessible on line and for free.
DUP MLA Sammy Wilson accused the Council for Curriculum Examinations of “discrimination” and “blatantly unfair treatment”. Officials pointed out that publishers would not provide transfer test materials in Irish because there was such a small market.
The only alternative was for the council to provide Irish papers through downloads from their own website. Non-Irish speakers weren’t actually paying anything extra and presumably whoever printed out the download provided their own paper and ink.
In a disgraceful display of offensive racist mockery DUP MLA Gregory Campbell mimicked an Irish phrase by saying, “Cori my yogi Bear, a can coca colya” during a Stormont debate.
The Irish language lobby group ACHT described Campbell’s mimicry as “irresponsible and racist behaviour”. It was “totally unacceptable and wouldn’t be tolerated by any other linguistic or ethnic minority” said ACHT. It called for an immediate retraction and apology from the DUP MLA.