• Ursula Savage

The Irish Language Act - Setting the Record Straight

This article could be about the arguments in support of an Irish Language Act. I could write about the benefits associated with the language, the previous legally binding agreements, the growing Irish language community and all the evidence that shows the need for legislative protection. It's not. It's about the fact that not one shred of credible evidence nor one reasoned argument as to why an Irish Language Act shouldn't happen has been put forward and that the narrative around this discussion is moving further from reality each day.

In an interview on Morning Ireland, East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson called Irish a 'failing language' in spite of growing and vibrant language communities across Ireland. In this interview, Wilson said that legislation would "require discrimination against non-Irish language speakers and would require the imposition of the language on public signs, even in areas where it's not wanted." No indication was given of how those who don't speak Irish would be discriminated against or what provision of the as-yet-undrafted legislation would 'impose' the language where it isn't wanted.

Unfortunately, Sammy Wilson's comments this morning aren't in any way surprising. What is continually disappointing, though, is that comments like this go unchallenged by reporters and are reported as fact, or at least as a reasonable opinion based on something other than a dislike of those who are not like him.

One alternative fact that the DUP have put forward is that they never agreed to Irish language legislation as part of the St. Andrew's Agreement. The Agreement states:

"The Government will introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language."

The DUP signed the Agreement with this provision on the Irish language included. That's a fact. They then set about delaying the implementation of that provision for as long as they could manage in spite of international recommendations, public outcry and losses in court on a range of language issues. Now that they cannot kick the can down the road any further they have now tried to deny that they ever agreed to an Irish Language Act in the first place, but this either means they didn't read the document or that they signed the agreement with no intention of fulfilling it. And yet, Sammy's statement went unchallenged.

What's more, the DUP have opposed provision for the Irish language community at every given opportunity. The delays in the establishment of Gaelcholáiste Dhoire, the rejection of the Irish Language Strategy and Belfast City Council's street-naming policy are just drops in the ocean of the DUP prejudice against the Irish language community. No reasonable justifications on these decisions have ever been put forward.

In addition to this, there is also the 'curry my yogurt' saga of 2014 to consider and the subsequent comments of using an Irish Language Act as toilet paper made by East Derry MP Gregory Campbell. Even with all this in the mix, the DUP are still treated as a party with genuine and justifiable concerns about protective legislation for the language.

The party is given plenty of airtime to discuss their position on the Irish language without challenge from a range of media outlets. Nelson Mc Causland is heard on the Nolan Show more often now after losing his seat than any elected representative is, and the complete failure to challenge Sammy Wilson's comments on the radio this morning show that the narrative around the status of the Irish language in the north is being distorted into something that it's not.

Today on Morning Ireland, another interview with Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin from Conradh na Gaeilge aired where the points that Sammy Wilson made were put to him. Ciarán was asked what an Irish Language Act would actually do, he was asked what it would cost, he was asked whether Irish really is a 'failing language.' The difference between the two interviews couldn't be clearer - not because of the differing viewpoints of the interviewees, but because of the approach to using statistics, facts, research and international context as the basis for answers rather than misinformation and scare-mongering to put a point across.

What's interesting is that while the supporters of an Irish Language Act are continually challenged on the information they put forward (and rightly so), statements such as those made by Wilson yesterday morning are taken as facts to be disproved by others, for he won't be asked to back up his claims.

Whether it's RTÉ continually referring to Irish language legislation as a Sinn Féin demand or the implication that the only obstacle to a return to devolved government is this Act, the discussion around the Irish language is becoming further and further removed from the truth.

Five political parties, each with seats in the Assembly, stood united at an event in the MAC Belfast last week to show their support for an Irish Language Act. How often do five parties from all persuasions come together to agree on an issue of identity in the north?

(L-R) Nichola Mallon MLA, SDLP; Stephen Agnew MLA, Green Party; Gerry Carroll MLA, People Before Profit; Paula Bradshaw MLA, Alliance, Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin, Conradh na Gaeilge; Gerry Adams TD, Sinn Féid; Neil Comer, Conradh na Gaeilge. Pictured at Conradh na Gaeilge event in MAC Belfast, September 2017.

Sinn Féin did not create the demand for an Irish Language Act - they, and other parties, and now responding to that demand. Thousands of people took to the streets of Belfast in May to show their support for this act, and that was just one day of many in the campaign for legislation which has gone on for over ten years. Far from the parties pandering to their base, they're listening to their constituents.In reality, the case is very simple. The Irish language community have rights, and they want those language rights recognized. It's really as straightforward as that.




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