Irish language act fears not groundless

Posted By: September 21, 2017

Newton Emerson. Irish News. Belfast.  Thursday, September 21, 2017, column KC News
Both sides in the Irish language act debate appear, appropriately enough, to be speaking different languages.

The Irish News published a piece on Monday from campaigners Linda Ervine and Dr. Francis Costello, setting out the case for an act. It seems to have genuinely struck nationalist readers as generous and incontestable. I disagreed with all of it. No doubt both positions are defensible – the problem is that Gaeilgoirí has framed a debate where they can no longer see objections as rational.

The first point in Monday’s piece was that the Scottish and Welsh have language acts and “live in harmony in their own countries with the English language,” so there should no issue – as Arlene Foster has claimed – of attacking “the British way of life”.

This is a common comparison, yet its falsity is so obvious it is remarkable it needs to be stated. Unlike Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland hosts a finely balanced ethnic divide over the very existence of its ‘own country’, which the Irish language almost perfectly mirrors.

The authors, one of whom is Protestant, heroically add that Gaeilgoirí is a “growing community of Catholics, Protestants, and non-believers.”

There are probably more Protestants learning to fly a helicopter right now than are learning Irish.

A closer geographical comparison to our language dispute would be Belgium, or indeed any of the bog-standard such disagreements across Europe and the world, from which Wales and Scotland are freakish exceptions.

Campaigners would be better saying we are not doomed to the fractious language politics souring places even as innocuous as Canada because Irish is never going to be an everyday means of communication. It is a cultural signifier, symbolic recognition of which would accord respect.

Failing to emphasize this stokes unionist fears of duplicity.

On the specific issue of fear, Monday’s piece was dismissive.

“Charges that an Irish Language Act would discriminate against members of the unionist community are unfounded,” it declared.

This is factually incorrect. The 2015 draft Irish language bill from then culture minister Carál Ní Chuilín, now Sinn Féin’s basis for Stormont talks, proposes “affirmative action in favor of Irish speakers in recruitment to the civil service and other public bodies”.

In the equality impact assessment attached to the bill, Ní Chuilín conceded this would “advantage Catholics and nationalists” but added “there are no discriminatory or adverse impacts”, without further explanation.

Disadvantaging Protestants and unionists is bad enough without a former minister baldly stating she can see nothing wrong with it.

The potential impact of this is so divisive it is legitimate to ask if it makes Stormont worth restoring. Instead, Monday’s authors wave away concerns as prejudice from people who just cannot “abide” Irish. This may be true of some unionists but in the case of all others, it verges on a smear.

Bilingual signage disputes were of such concern in 2015 that Alliance opposed Ní Chuilín’s bill in the executive.

Ervine and Costello say this is absurd when most place-names in Northern Ireland are already in Irish. A mischievous response to that might be that bilingualism is thus unnecessary – and that would be no more mischievous than claiming not to understand signage concerns.

Can anyone in Northern Ireland claim they do not grasp why the rich cultural diversity behind the name ‘Londonderry’ does not prevent it being vandalized at the roadside? Does anyone really not foresee the nightmare of such disputes on every street and in every town, dragging in councilors and residents as they are called on to vote and debate them?

Perhaps the strangest claim in Monday’s article is that an act will “depoliticise” Irish by moving disputes to the courts.

Has that worked for Brexit, or with Asher’s bakery? In 2009, the High Court in Belfast ruled that the requirement to use only English in court is fully consistent with justice and the Human Rights Act. Why has that not satisfied Irish campaigners? In any case, Sinn Féin’s draft bill wants disputes addressed by an Irish language commissioner with the powers of a High Court judge, plus a new criminal offense of non-cooperation – a politicised language court.

Foster’s change of language over the past week, from praising Irish to finding legislation “humiliating”,  coincides with a survey finding a majority of unionists remain firmly opposed to an act.

Whatever games the DUP is playing, and whatever prejudices lurk within the unionist community, apprehension about Sinn Féin’s proposals is entirely warranted.