DUP urges block on Irish language officer

Councillors at Belfast City Hall voted to create a post for a new Irish Language Officer - but unionists objected.
Councillors at Belfast City Hall voted to create a post for a new Irish Language Officer - but unionists objected.

A DUP councillor has called on Belfast ratepayers to block a council decision to appoint an Irish language officer – by opposing the matter in the public consultation.

Belfast City Council last night considered two options on the matter – the Alliance, SDLP, Sinn Fein and People Before Profit position of creating the position of an Irish language office, and the unionist position calling for the matter to be sent back to committee for consideration.

However, the unionist motion was defeated 31 to 22.

Speaking afterwards, DUP councillor Lee Reynolds said: “The council policy is actually to work with three language areas, the Irish language, Ulster Scots and minority ethnic languages. And yet the council has now approved the creation of a position for an officer to promote only one of those languages.

“In the public consultation, ratepayers will now be asked to consider only one option. But that is not a consultation, that is a fait accompli.”

He said the policy and resources committee report on the matter did not produce justification for the position.

“Based on knowledge levels of the language, usage and demand for our services in Irish there is very low major demand for an Irish language officer, but they are not willing to get into that.

“The number of people using the council Irish telephone line is only a handful a year.

“With regards Google translation of our web site, Irish is the fourth most popular after languages such as Spanish and Polish.

“People will have to respond back to the public consultation saying ‘we don’t want this’.”

The consultation will be launched soon with a number of events but will not be posted door-to-door, so ratepayers will have to contact the council if they wish to make their views known, Mr Reynolds said.

The biggest risk for the ratepayer is that they may have to fund an officer in position “with not enough to do”.

An officer responsible for all three language areas would have a much greater demand on their time, he said.

Supporters of the new position have noted that the Irish language group Foras na Gaeilge is proposing to pay for half the salary. But Mr Reynolds added that the policy and resources committee has noted that the group is reviewing whether it can pay for Irish language officers in councils.

“It is possible that the council could be left to fund 100% of the salary,” he said.

DUP party leader Arlene Foster said she had been “uplifted” to meet Irish language students in Our Lady’s Grammar School in Newry recently.

She made headlines ahead of the last Assembly election by comparing Sinn Fein to crocodiles for their ongoing demands for an Irish Language Act.

But Mr Reynolds said there was no conflict between the party’s position in the council vote and his party leader’s engagement with Newry students, saying she was “aware” of how DUP councillors would vote.

He was also critical of the Alliance support for the new post, describing it as part of a “love in” with Sinn Fein. Alliance had voted against the creation of such an officer in a similar vote several years ago, he said.

But Alliance councillor Michael Long opened his address to the chamber on the issue in Irish. As a Presbyterian, he named a list of notable Presbyterians who were Irish enthusiasts as well as Protestants such as the first President of Ireland and East Belfast woman Linda Ervine.

“During election broadcasts in the 1990s I used to wonder what Gerry Adams was talking about when he spoke Irish,” he said. Some people would “run away from that” but instead, he went to Irish language night classes which he found “very welcoming and inclusive”.

Mr Long said that if there were opportunities for an Ulster Scots group to fund their own language officer at the council “we will be happy to see what can be done”. The same applied to any groups that might wish to fund minority language officers for “newcomers” to Northern Ireland, he added.

The SDLP’s Tim Attwood and Sinn Fein’s Matthew Collins and Seanna Walsh also spoke in support of the new Irish language post.

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