Efforts to bring back devolution could pivot on Irish language
Campbell’s lampooning of Irish and Foster’s refusal of a language Act galvanised nationalists
Irish language protesters outside the Education Authority on Academy Street in Belfast. “We are not asking for everybody to speak Irish. The language is there for all who want it.” Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Northern Ireland could be a more agreeable place if Arlene Forster from Inis Ceithleann, or Gregory Campbell in Doire, Londondoire, or even Londondoire Colmcille, could learn to soften towards the Irish language.
Certainly that’s the view of Linda Ervine, a loyalist Protestant student of the language and a sister-in-law of the late Progressive Unionist Party leader David Ervine.
Unionists, she says, need to look at things differently. “They see the language in the wrong context; they view it as something to do with simply being Irish and about not being British.
“For me it is a language of the British Isles. It doesn’t separate us, it actually links us within these islands. For me it does not say ‘ourselves alone’, it says we are joined, we are united. I see it as a bridge.”
Currently the Stormont talks are paused. Efforts to bring back devolution could stand or fall on the back of a settlement to demands for an Irish language Act.
Ervine is conscious of the frequently-made argument by DUP MP Gregory Campbell and others that the DUP does not despise Irish. Instead they despise how Sinn Féin has “weaponised” it .
Three years ago she criticised him after he mocked the Irish language in a Stormont speech, where he talked of “curry my yogurt a can coca-colyer”, an intervention that caused deep offence.
Then Ervine had tweeted that “unfortunately Gregory [had] lived up to his name: “Cam – crooked. Beal – mouth. Sometimes it would be better to keep it shut.”
She works for An Turas, an Irish language group at the East Belfast Mission in the Skainos Centre on the Newtownards Road, which runs 13 Irish classes weekly. Three-quarters of its students are from the unionist community.
Campbell’s argument has traction, she accepts. Many unionists believe Sinn Féin uses Irish to wind-up and antagonise unionists. But the more unionists “embrace the language” the less it can be a weapon, she argues.
Some 184,898 people (11 per cent) of the North’s population claim some knowledge of Irish – 104,943 (6 per cent) can speak it to varying degrees; 65,000 (4 per cent) says they can understand, speak, read and write it.
A total of 4,000 people use it as their main language at home. The North has 29 Irish-medium schools: 28 are primary; one is a post-primary, Colaiste Feirste in west Belfast, which has 600 pupils.
Ten English-language schools have Irish-speaking units attached; seven are primary, three are post-primary. In 2014/15, 5,256 pupils studied entirely through Irish. Nearly £20 million is spent on teaching it in schools.
However, while Irish language schools are thriving, pupils in other Northern schools have little interest in it. Just 1,732 pupils took Irish to GCSE level, and just 332 to A-level last year.
Former Democratic Unionist Party minister Nelson McCausland argued recently that an Irish Language Act would cost £100 million a year since it would compel Stormont and all Northern official bodies to do business in Irish.
However, Conradh na Gaeilge puts the cost at a fifth of that, spread over five years: a set-up cost of £8.5 million, along with £2 million annually thereafter, excluding BBC Irish language programming and schools.
“The best way to take politics out of the language is to provide for it. Put a structure in place so that the politics of Irish don’t have to be debated in the future,” says Conradh’s general secretary Julian de Spainn,
Under its plan Stormont would see more use of Irish. So too would local councils and other public bodies. Bilingual road signs would be erected. Street names would be changed if more than half of locals wanted it.
Furthermore, Irish would be used in the North’s courts for the first time since the Penal Laws. Everything would be overseen by an Irish language commissioner.
Concessions to Sinn Féin are unacceptable to some unionists. However, de Spainn says unionists should not be fearful or suspicious. “We are not asking for everybody to speak Irish. The language is there for all who want it.”
Campbell’s lampooning of Irish, Foster’s refusal to accept a language Act and DUP Minister Paul Given’s removal of a paltry £50,000 student grant galvanised nationalists before the March Assembly election.
The DUP’s vote held up, but Sinn Féin’s surged, helped by a visceral, emotional nationalist response to what they saw as a gratuitous and intolerable insult to Irish and Irishness, even if they do not speak it.
If the DUP has learned anything it has surely learned that baiting and taunting nationalists does more damage to unionism and the union. But how can it make a U-turn and not lose too much face?
Foster appears to be edging towards change. On Wednesday she said she would meet Irish language groups to hear their concerns – a move that was welcomed by Sinn Féin.
However, she linked support for Irish with support for Ulster-Scots. “We also say that in respect of Ulster Scots and Orange and British identity that there needs to be respect held for those cultures as well.”
Again that is all perfectly reasonable, but it is at odds with Sinn Féin’s insistence that regardless of what is done for Ulster Scots there must be a free-standing Irish language Act.
So there the argument lies – one single Act or a composite one? Northern Secretary James Brokenshire could yet introduce an Irish language Act – leaving Stormont parties free from the responsibility of being the ones to give ground.