Four months after the Assembly election in March, Northern Ireland still has no devolved government. A long-running dispute behind the political deadlock concerns the introduction of an Irish Language Act. While Irish has official status as a national language of the Republic, it is recognised only as a minority language in the North.
Many nationalists seek upgrade in status to legal equality with English, arguing that Irish is both an essential part of a common, cross-community heritage and essential to the pursuit of a ‘parity of esteem’ between Protestant and Catholic traditions.
Although the nationalist movement has promoted the Irish language since the 19th century, today’s controversy surrounds the British government’s unkept promise to legislate for an Irish Language Act given in the 2008 St. Andrew’s Agreement.
Mounting nationalist anger at this failure, aggravated by the intransigent response of unionists, has exacerbated political tensions in the North and contributed to the collapse of power-sharing earlier this year. But an Irish language act – which would have wide-ranging consequences for the North, deserves further scrutiny.
The nationalist claim that Irish belongs to all is ambitious. Most Ulster Protestants feel distant from the language. The 2012 Public Attitudes towards the Irish Language in Northern Ireland survey indicated a clear sectarian divide in perceptions. 66% of Catholics supported use of Irish, with 52% describing it as an important feature of their personal identity. In contrast, only 14% of Protestants endorsed its use and a meagre 5% felt that it was significant to their identity.
While there are a series of tragic historical and social reasons for this divide, it remains that most Protestants do not feel connected to Irish. It is nearly exclusively Catholics who identify with the Irish language in Northern Ireland.
However, it is not only history that separates Protestants from the language. We also should not blame Protestant intransigence or intolerance for their alienation from the language. Of course, some Protestants spurn and deride it – the ‘curry my yoghurt’ remarks of the DUP‘s Gregory Campbell stand out for their demonstration of such an attitude. But these remarks are not representative of Protestant views of Irish.
Many Protestants are curious about the language, especially those from loyalist backgrounds. Recent research by the QUB academic Ian Malcolm found that most Protestant children wanted to learn Irish, and regretted its unavailability at their schools. Several loyalist prisoners, such as William Smith, even learned Irish during the Troubles. It cannot be asserted that Protestants are simply intolerant of Irish.
Without any exposure to the language in school or wider society, most Protestants encounter Irish solely through its use by republican groups. Resultantly, much of the Protestant community’s knowledge of Irish begins at ‘Sinn Féin’ and ends with ‘Tiocfaidh Ár Lá’. Protestants cannot identify with the Irish language if they associate it with republicanism and, by extension, the Provisional IRA.
This misconception survives because of the continued association between republicanism and the mainstream Irish language movement. Sinn Féin’s leadership of a high-profile campaign for an Irish Language Act overshadows every effort to depoliticise the Irish language.
Unfortunately, the language movement invites such political associations. Sinn Féin’s award of a ‘Bobby Sands’ Gaeltacht Scholarship in 2014 naturally attracted unionist outrage, but drew no comment from any mainstream Irish language body. The language movement’s failure to assuage justified unionist anger represents a total lack of outreach to Protestants and respect for their traditions.
As a Protestant nationalist learning Irish, my nearest Irish-language facility at home is An Chultúrlann on the Falls Road, Belfast. An Chultúrlann is one of Northern Ireland’s largest Irish-language centres, reopened by Irish President Mary McAleese in 2011. However, it does not meaningfully welcome unionists. It is surrounded by republican murals. An Chultúrlann’s bookshop, An Ceathrú Póilí, is dominated by republican literature: including a children’s comic entitled ‘Bobby Sands: Freedom Fighter’. An Ceathrú Póilí and An Chultúrlann associate republicanism with the Irish language.
When grassroots organs of the language movement like An Chultúrlann are politicised, most Protestants struggle to identify with Irish. Politicisation makes it another sectarian quarrel. It turns a language act into a victory for republicanism and sectarian politics. Until mainstream Irish language activism can sever ties with republicanism, Irish will not receive universal support in Northern Ireland.
Moreover, contrary to the movement’s assertions, the Irish language does not presently face meaningful legal discrimination. Over the last five years, Irish language organisations have received £174 million in state funding. Comparison with support for Ulster-Scots, the closest equivalent to Irish in the heritage politics of Northern Ireland, illuminates the scale of this support. Over the same period, the Ulster-Scots Agency received £12 million. Since approximately 270,000 people claim some knowledge of Irish and 252,000 people claim some knowledge of Ulster-Scots, this means that Irish language spending is roughly £644 per speaker while funding for Ulster-Scots is about £47 per speaker. These levels of funding do not suggest that Irish today faces serious discrimination from the Northern Irish state.
Official status for the Irish language would also effectively demand Northern Ireland behave like a bilingual country. It is not. Spoken proficiently every day by nearly the entire population, English is the common language of everyone living in Northern Ireland. In contrast, less than 0.5% of the population report that they use Irish daily at home or socially. Virtually all Irish speakers are also native speakers of English.
Canada is an officially bilingual country, encoding both French and English as legally equal languages at a federal level. While most Canadians are native or otherwise fluent speakers of English, French remains the first language of 7.3 million Canadians, or 22% of the population. Official bilingualism suits nations, like Canada, that are bilingual. Northern Ireland is monolingual and therefore does not require a second official language. There is no practical reason to grant Irish official status in the North.
Low levels of fluency mean that the use of Irish in courts and in government, which official status would require, is impractical. A bilingual state would require the written translation of all judicial and legislative documents, and a translation service for all speeches given in court and in the Stormont Assembly. Since very few people speak Irish fluently, this would be a logistical nightmare to implement.
More importantly, even if official status were awarded, Irish would remain largely unused in official settings. Communication in court or in government demands a high level of fluency in a language shared by all, to deal with complicated matters. As most people in Northern Ireland are not fluent in Irish, it is impractical to use it in these settings.
Nonetheless, we should continue to promote it. Irish forms part of the shared heritage of everyone living on the island of Ireland, regardless of their identity. It should receive more funding and greater levels of cross-community interest. In the North, Irish and Ulster-Scots should be understood as common traditions of both communities. Legislation should introduce an optional subject covering both local languages available at every school in Northern Ireland.
A sweeping Irish Language Act is a bad idea. While the British government has not kept its promise, it has kept to the spirit of its obligation to ‘enhance and protect the development of the Irish language’ described in the St. Andrew’s Agreement.
An Irish Language Act would not work in practice because it requires a bilingual society that does not exist. More importantly, before such a society can emerge, Irish must be depoliticised. The present fate of Irish in the North is a tragedy. It is a tragedy that our national language is reduced to the latest weapon in our island’s oldest and most destructive political dispute. Many of those who promote and represent it must decide which matters more: the IRA or the Irish language?