8 May 2008 Edition
Labhair í agus mairfidh sí
Gaelicising Sinn Féin
BY JIM McVEIGH & SÉANNA WALSH
SINN FÉIN has a record of activism around the Irish language that we can be proud of. We have worked in partnership with many of the Irish-language bodies over many years. Sinn Féin activists, many of them ex-prisoners who learned Irish in jail, have been very supportive of and active in campaigns around Irish-medium schools, businesses and the promotion of the language.
It was Sinn Féin that ensured that the Irish language was written into the Good Friday Agreement and it was Sinn Féin that put it on the agenda at the St Andrew’s negotiations and in the final agreement.
Sinn Féin is determined to build on the momentum that has been achieved in recent years. We are committed to the creation of a bilingual society.
Despite that good work, the one area where we have failed to make any significant impact is the introduction of the language as the living, working language of our party! ‘Labhair í agus mairfidh sí.’ All of our collective experience informed us that a language can only survive and thrive when it is spoken, in school, at work and socially.
During the Blanket Protest and Hunger Strike in the H-Blocks, the language flourished among the prisoners because it became a spoken language, partly because of their grá for it but also because it served the needs of the protesting prisoners. Ironically, that tragic period proved to be the high point of the language revival within the prisons. Despite the best efforts of many prisoners who organised classes, etc, in the months and years that followed the Blanket Protest the language went into steady decline within the H-Blocks as fluent speakers were released.
That decline was only eventually halted and indeed reversed when, in the 1990s, the prisoners established Gaeltacht groups and then eventually a Gaeltacht wing. Those prisoners who could speak Irish fluently and had a passion for it (by now this had dwindled to a small group of prisoners), as well as those who could only speak a little but desperately wanted to learn, were moved to a wing where Gaeilge would be the only spoken language.
Within a few short months the Gaeltacht was thriving and the standard of the spoken language and indeed the confidence of the speakers themselves leapt forward. Other prisoners, inspired by the example of the Gaeltacht, lined up to join the wing. Such was the demand that a second Gaeltacht was soon established.
We believe that this is a very important lesson, both for us as individuals who care about our language and indeed our Party. If we are serious about the language and its revival we must provide leadership on this issue and set about turning Sinn Féin into an Irish-speaking party.
Imagine this: in three to five years’ time, we have dozens of Irish-speaking cumainn throughout the country. Hundreds of Sinn Féin members conduct their business in the party as Gaeilge. Comhairle ceantair meetings, cúigí meetings and Coiste Seasta meetings are conducted through the medium of Irish, occasionally to begin with but then more and more frequently as confidence and competence with the language grows. More and more of our spokespersons and elected political reps appear on TV and radio and speak the language fluently.
Just like in the H-Blocks in the 1990s, we have enough Gaeilgoirí and leadership figures passionate about the language to seriously begin this transformation now. But remember, there are many thousands of Gaeilgeoirí and nationalists outside of our party presently (think of the thousands of young people who now attend Irish-language schools) who could be recruited to our cause and this project in the time ahead. Look at the passion and idealism evident within the Irish-language community. More and more of these people – students, parents, activists – should be invited to join Sinn Féin.
So where do we start? Well let’s commit ourselves, bottom to top, to turning Sinn Féin into an Irish-speaking party within the next few years. What a huge turning point that would be both for us as a party and for the fortunes of the language across the country. We have already launched a Cumann Gaelach in Dublin and Cumann Chaoimhín Mhic Brádaigh in Belfast.
In Dublin, under the stewardship of Lucilita Bhreathnach, the Dublin Cumann Gaelach is actively working against Education Minister Mary Hanafin’s circular on the ending of Total Immersion Education (protest 13 May) and working in conjunction with Gaelgeoirí in the universities.
In Belfast, under the stewardship of Éamann Mac Mánais, the Cumann Chaoimhín Mhic Bhrádaigh is working on street signs, signs in Irish for businesses, improved Irish for our councillors, a special Slógadh for learners and the Gaelicisation of Belfast Sinn Féin in general.
The vital and important next step would be to establish a beachhead: two cumainn Gaelach in each cúige area; a dozen before the end of 2008. Next year, why not one cumann Gaelach in each comhairle ceantair? Parallel with this, let’s embark upon a serious recruitment drive within the broad Irish-language community in order to swell the number of Irish-speaking activists within the party?
Next year, why not begin to conduct some of our business at a regional and national level through the medium of Irish? A number of dedicated Coiste Seasta and cúigí meetings could be conducted through Irish. Further classes could be organised, including intensive sessions, for members and leadership figures in order to accelerate this process.
When the prisoners moved from learning the language to speaking the language we were liberated and inspired and the language began to flourish as a living language. In the years that followed, many others were similarly moved inside and outside the prison. It was a simple lesson but it remains one of the most inspiring and powerful examples to this day.
An Phoblacht Magazine
AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:
- The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
- It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
- There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.