Takes Irish language out of political arena

Posted By: February 18, 2017

Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, February 18, 2017

The great strength of the demand for an Irish language Act is also its great weakness: no-one knows what it means.

However, shared ignorance has not prevented the sectarian strangling of what should be an informed debate on language and society.

The argument has arisen because the two nations philosophy in the Good Friday Agreement portrays Irish as a sectarian symbol on the Catholic side. So, like parading, the past and even academic selection, a 2,500-year old language has become another sectarian bone in Stormont’s political dogfight.

Sinn Féin presents the case for an Irish language act in terms of equality (whatever that means). However, Gerry Adams has reportedly said that equality was designed to “break the bastards” (whoever they are). Irish may have been broken by centuries of military, political and economic oppression, but if a language Act is designed to break anyone, we would be better off without it.

Many in the DUP are equally at fault. They mock Irish because they do not understand it, which is rather like burning books because you cannot read. (There is no shame in being unable to read. The real difficulty is in not recognizing the value of reading.)

Sadly, for a party often obsessed with history, the DUP does not apparently know that up to 1720, half of Ulster’s Presbyterians spoke Irish. While Presbyterianism often fostered Irish, many in the Catholic hierarchy did as much to suppress the language as the British authorities. For example, while the Protestant churches translated the Bible into Irish in the 17th century, a complete Catholic version was not published until 1981.

Like those who signed the Good Friday Agreement, many Unionists appear unaware that Presbyterian minister, Rev William Neilson’s seminal work, “An Introduction to the Irish Language,” was written by a Presbyterian, dedicated to an Anglican and published by a Catholic.

Irish is not a religion or a political creed. It has no place in politics and certainly no role in sectarianism. Like any language, it is just a way of communicating.

So the only context for rational debate is to remove Irish from what passes for politics here. (We might reasonably do the same with education.) If dealing with the 30-year legacy of the Troubles should be vested in an independent body, the 300-year legacy of the suppression of Irish could be dealt with in a similar way (perhaps with a Scottish input).

Only a politics-free body can ethically query the reason for an Irish language act. Is it to prevent Irish from disappearing, to revitalize it, to fully revive it, or just to allow Irish speakers to access public services through it?

Whether it is any or all of those, Irish needs a language policy, similar to the Scottish Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s national five-year plan. Their current plan aims to increase the numbers learning, speaking and using Gaelic. We could comfortably copy that for Irish.

If a language act can be seen as forming the top of a linguistic pyramid, only a language policy can develop the supporting structure. We cannot condense a policy into a slogan, particularly one which demands the undefined.

In any case, legislation for a language is rarely effective on its own. Eighty years after de Valera made Irish the first official language, a report by Údaras na Gaeltachta concludes that Irish will no longer be the primary language in any Gaeltacht community eight years from now.

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith reminds us that in 1845, Irish was the 14th most widely spoken language in Europe. De Valera’s legislation a century later made little difference to the language’s decline.

Our first task today is to determine the future legal status of Irish (certainly post-Brexit). Scots Gaelic has “equal respect” with English, which is rather vague. In the Arctic, Sámi and Norwegian “are of equal worth,” but only in certain geographical areas.

Irish needs official recognition so we can frame a wider language policy. It is a challenging task, and its cost will influence the policy’s scope. Meanwhile, in the absence of a language policy, demanding road signs in Irish, for example, is just linguistic flag flying.

Moving the language away from sectarianism and into a shared historical and linguistic space will not be easy. But there is no future in sectarian arguments.

Their sectarian inter-dependency is captured in the Irish saying, Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile. It translates as “one beetle recognizes another,” suggesting that those of a similar nature (in politics for example) tend to feed off each other. It is time that the sectarian beetles found somewhere else to feed.