Thousands of people from across Ireland staged a rally and march in Belfast on Saturday calling for the introduction of an Irish Language Act in the North.
Several thousand men, women and children dressed in red marched from the Falls Road in west Belfast to a rally outside Belfast City Hall, where music was played and speeches were made in both Irish and English.
The Acht Anois event organised by An Dream Dearg included Irish language speakers and supporters from schools, youth groups and community organisations in the North, and also from Cork, Donegal, Dublin, Galway and Monaghan.
Organisers said it took place “to celebrate the vibrancy and diversity of the Irish language and her community of speakers and to allow the public to support the campaign for respect, recognition and rights for the Irish speaking community”.
Paula Melvin (25) from Dublin told The Irish Times "language rights are human rights".
“An act was promised, young people want an Irish language act, its about equality,” she said.
In January a row between the DUP and Sinn Féin over the controversial "cash for ash" green energy scheme precipitated the collapse of government in the North. The late Martin McGuinness finally collapsing the institutions after a £50,000 Liofa bursary scheme for disadvantaged children was pulled by the DUP communities minister Paul Givan just before Christmas 2016.
The DUP later backed down and agreed to fund the scheme but it marked a low-point in the worsening relationship between the two parties.
A major stumbling block to the formation of a new Stormont Executive has been around the introduction of an Irish Language Act (Acht Na Gaeilge) that the British government committed to introduce in the St Andrews Agreement in 2006.
From the DUP leader Arlene Foster’s position of “never” agreeing to legislation, and making controversial comments comparing Sinn Féin to “crocodiles” over demands for legislation, in recent weeks she has softened her tone on this matter.
While she remains unconvinced of the need for an act and concerned about cost, she has spoken of broadening out the discussion around this area to accommodate Ulster Scots plus British and Orange culture. Stormont sources have speculated that agreement could be reached on what some have described as a "Culture Act".
Paul Deeds (39) from An Droichead Irish language organisation in south Belfast said it was "beyond time" that the appropriate legislation protecting the Irish language was introduced.
“My son was born 10 years ago and then there was a similar march trying to get rights for the Irish speaking community,” he said. “Ten years later he is a fluent gaeilgeoir but still his rights aren’t recognised in legislation in the North and that is just criminal that we are still on the streets having to march like this.
“We are red with anger, but red with enthusiasm and hope and determination to finally get this done.”
Sinn Féin leaders Gerry Adams and Michelle O'Neill were among those in attendance from political parties, with representation from the SDLP, People Before Profit and the Alliance Party, among others.
Sinn Féin Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile said the demonstration was “a demand for our rights and ultimately to send a very, very clear message that 10 years after the St Andrews Agreement that it still isn’t good enough that people have to wait for equality.”
Alliance councillor Emmet McDonough-Brown (33) attended Bunscoil Phobal Feirste, the first Irish language primary school in Belfast so said he was “especially proud to march for an Irish Language Act with teachers, classmates and supporters today”.
“Alliance has made significant progress on the Irish language in recent years and our support has brought about an officer to develop the language in the city,” he said. “Irish is part of our shared heritage. It belongs to everybody, threatens nobody, and is a language of art, poetry, music and much more. I look forward to the next Assembly passing an Act.”