The House of Lords recently completed consideration of the Identity and Languages (NI) Bill. The introduction of this piece of legislation in May made a huge difference, but the fact that it hasn’t been the subject of much public discussion is, I hope, a sign that unnecessary arguments about language are a thing of the past.
It’s been 16 years since the St. Andrews Agreement said “the government would pass the Irish Language Act” and while the bill in the Lords is a group of bills tied together, it represents a significant step forward for the Gaeilge and our growing community speaking Irish. .
So far, the debate in Westminster has been rather modest, with two Conservative and Labor Lords reflecting on their great-grandfathers’ ability to speak Irish in Clare and Cork in the 1800s. On the other hand, Baroness (Kate) Howey called the potential use of the Irish language a “political weapon”. A link that I haven’t heard from in quite a while, and thankfully is now pretty much redundant in its usage.
Former Secretary of State Lord (Paul) Murphy reflected on the depoliticization of the Welsh language over the past 20-30 years and cited his constituency as an example: “In my former constituency, which is the most anglicized constituency in Wales, Welsh is taught to everyone in secondary schools, and the vote for Plaid Cymra is minimal.”
There have been debates over and over again about the “politicization” of the Irish language, but I think everyone is getting tired of it.
Fortunately, the path of depoliticization that Wales has taken is now in the north.
More union people are now learning Irish. They see no contradiction in learning the Irish language, just as there is for those Welshmen who both support the union and claim ownership of their own language.
This possession, of course, is rooted in the depths of centuries. For example, during the plantation period, some of the Scottish settlers spoke Scottish Gaelic. Therefore, they easily understood those who spoke the Ulster Gaeilge language during that period of settlement.
It is also well known that the Presbyterians have made an enormous contribution to the preservation and revival of the Irish language in recent centuries.
In the present, unfortunately, there will be battles. This is especially true in education, where finance and other red herrings have been used to block development even as growth and demand have been on a continuous upward trajectory over the past two decades.
Seven years ago Gaelcholáiste Dhoire opened in Dungiven with fewer than 20 students. Currently, the number of students in the school is about 300 people, and their number continues to grow every year.
At the time it opened, many MLAs in the Assembly were strongly opposed, even though it was only the second post-primary Irish high school in the entire north, and the other was in Belfast, over 50 miles away.
In May, Sinn Féin’s Aisling Reilly became the first MLA to give an Assembly speech entirely in Irish without self-translation, a privilege that many other legislatures take for granted. Ten years ago, when Irish was spoken in the hall, you might have heard one or two loud murmurs or witty remarks from the other participants. In this case, the MLAs used new headphones on their desks to listen to simultaneous translation and behaved respectfully.
Stormont has been missing the dedicated voice of Ulster Scots since Jim Shannon left in 2010 to take a seat at Hoose O Commons. I think this is very unfortunate as those who speak it (be it a dialect or a language) deserve to have it reflected in the Assembly in some way.
The red sea was visible in the streets of Belfast city center in May as thousands of Irish supporters gathered to demand “recognition of the language, respect and rights”. Conchúr Ó Muadaigh, speaking on behalf of the organizers of An Dream Dearg, said it was “the biggest demonstration of the Irish language of the generation”.
Irish language activist Linda Erwin said she was there “to support language rights in Northern Ireland”.
“As a British citizen, I ask for the same rights enjoyed in other parts of the UK,” she explained.
The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act was passed in 2005, and the equivalent Welsh version is celebrating its 30th anniversary next year. We have a lot of catching up to do, and public demand for more support for the language is growing in the face of further delays and questionable cutbacks that affect Gaeilge and its community.
Over the years, nothing has been relegated to the background in politics as often as the Irish Language Act.
Even this latest piece of legislation was passed seven months later than was recently passed by the UK government.
When the Identity and Languages (NI) Bill completes its passage through Westminster, it will create provisions for the Identity and Cultural Expressions Authority, Commissioner for Irish Language and Commissioner for Ulster Scots and Ulster British Traditions.
The First and Deputy First Ministers shall then jointly appoint these Commissioners. However, if the Assembly is still in a state of paralysis after the passage of the Bill, Westminster must act immediately to appoint both Commissioners.
Sixteen years in the background is long enough.