Dublin’s actions have inflamed North’s Irish-language crisis
Irish Government’s indifference boosts the DUP’s dismissive attitude to the language
Irish-language protesters in the Whiterock area of Belfast. Photograph: Colm Lenghan/Pacemaker
It will come as a shock to many people that the issue of an Irish language Act has been a factor in the collapse of the talks to restore devolution in Northern Ireland. Some of the most shocked will be Irish speakers themselves. From being an ignored and barely acknowledged sector a couple of decades ago, they have become one of the most vocal and effective lobby groups in the North. Ironically, Irish has put the kibosh – caidhp bháis, or death cap – on the talks for the moment.
The pressure group An Dream Dearg are probably most representative of the push for legislation. Their logo is to be seen online; they tweet and march and have presented a youthful, vibrant, and indeed cheeky side to the language.
They coined the phrase “dearg le fearg”, meaning “red with rage”, which gave voice to their attitude to how the language has been treated in their eyes.
A march last year in Belfast brought out about 5,000 demonstrators of all ages, clad in red T-shirts, for an Irish language Act. It was good-natured, boisterous, blunt, and, by the standards of the Irish language, a good turnout.
Looking at the issue from a nationalist perspective, the language does hold great significance. There are Irish-language schools to be found in many nationalist areas and local people take great pride in them.
There is a sense of wonder to be found in the fact that so many young people are learning the language in bunscoil/primary school. (The term “bunners” is affectionately used by many people to describe children who have attended an Irish-language primary school.)
That said, the vast majority of nationalist children go to the local Catholic primary school and most of these schools have no – or very little – Irish-language teaching. It is a similar story at secondary level. The number of children studying Irish in the traditional strongholds of Catholic grammar schools has fallen markedly over recent years.
Many of the Catholic would-be middle-class are every bit as motivated by success as their southern counterparts and value “sensible” subjects over the native language. Irish in Catholic schools has been swimming against a tide of indifference for many years, though the rise in education through Irish has hidden that.
Few people from a nationalist background will ever be anything other than supportive of Irish in public, but that is not to say they are going to throw themselves blindly at life’s ramparts because of it. To misquote John Hume’s maxim, you cannot eat a language.
Without doubt, the DUP’s petty provocations in recent times – changing the name of a boat from Irish to English and withdrawing funding from children for Gaeltacht courses – have added to the anger. Indeed, it is genuinely puzzling as to why the DUP indulged in such sly digs.
Both the UUP and the DUP have appointed board members to the cross-Border language body set up under the Belfast Agreement, a body that includes one to promote Irish, Foras na Gaeilge. Why appoint board members to an organisation that aims to develop the language on an all-island basis and then undermine that same work?
There is a general and genuine tiredness amongst many Irish speakers that so much energy is spent, so often, on so many basic things and that so little seems to change. Support is not given but constantly bartered. Money is not available but scrounged. Needs are not met but pleaded for.
Nationalist Irish speakers – to use an Ulster-Scots word – have become thoroughly thrane (stubborn) in attitude. They have to watch the North blossom in red, white and blue come the marching season, but funding for a Gaeltacht course is too much for unionists to bear?
Range of opinion
This is not to suggest, either, that all Irish speakers accept Sinn Féin’s bona fides on the language. Many do not, and there is a broad range of political opinion and religious allegiances amongst Irish speakers.
It used to be said by Irish speakers in the South that they could “shame” Fianna Fáil into doing something about the language. The same phenomenon could now be said to be taking place in the North – Sinn Féin have been “shamed” into a course of action that they might not have otherwise taken.
Many northern Irish speakers are also angry that the Government in Dublin has done so little to support the language in the Republic, thus allowing unionists to downplay the issue even more. To give him his due, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been making all the right noises about the language since he took office.
However, it is difficult for him to decry the DUP for renaming a boat in English when Fine Gael has also dropped the policy of naming ships of the Naval Service in Irish and is now naming them after writers of, well, English.
Worse, former taoiseach Enda Kenny spoke Irish but showed little interest in protecting it. He was described by one well-respected journalist, Breandán Delap, as having failed “disastrously in his moral duty to ensure that the state of the language would be better when he left office as when he had assumed it”.
Kenny’s attitude was noticed by Irish speakers in Belfast and Derry as much as it was in Dublin and Galway. Irish speakers see themselves as speaking a living language that belongs to 32 counties and do not recognise language partition.
If the Dublin Government shows such little interest in Irish and the DUP are constantly sniping, then what other alternative is there but for activists to shout “Ná géilltear!” (“No surrender!”) and demand legislation to give the language support in their green field?
Still, the most astounding thing of all is that the DUP, Sinn Féin and the two governments have all let themselves be backed into a corner by a few thousand people in red T-shirts, pushing baby buggies down the Falls Road.