Ben Lowry: Moderate advocates of Irish language act should turn their ire on pro-Gaelic hardliners, not on reasonable sceptics

A march demanding an Irish language act in Belfast in late May. 
PPhotograph By Declan Roughan

Press Eye
A march demanding an Irish language act in Belfast in late May. PPhotograph By Declan Roughan Press Eye

Implementing a standalone Irish language act has the support of a large swathe of the political spectrum, from Alliance in the middle to the hardest fringes of republicanism. Those various groups have different visions of what exactly an act might entail.

But there is an onus on the more moderate supporters of an act to go through Sinn Fein’s 2015 proposals for an act (which are published in full at the very bottom of this article) and tell us which of those nine stipulations they want to see in such legislation.

After all, such moderate supporters of a standalone act are telling unionists that new protection is necessary.

Instead then of scolding unionists for having understandable concerns about how such an act might be used, perhaps they would let us know if they think the 2015 plan was too extreme.

The first of the 2015 proposals is to define Irish “as an official language” in NI to “guarantee services through Irish on a par with those available through English”.

How many moderate nationalists, perhaps people who enjoy sending their children to Irish summer schools in Donegal, actually think that Irish is or should be on a par with English?

In March, the Department of Communities published figures for 2015/16 that found that 9% of the adult population in Northern Ireland can speak Irish, 5% can write it and only 1% can write or carry on a complicated conversation in the language.

In the recent Assembly and Westminster elections, more than 40% of those who voted cast their ballots for nationalist parties.

Irish language provision is widespread in Catholic schools, a major part of NI’s education sector.

If this is such an indispensable part of nationalist culture that it must not only by law be protected in the Province, but must in fact be put on a par with English, then it is reasonable to ask why the language has failed to gain more traction within the nationalist population here.

The second of the 2015 provisions is “conferring the right to speak the Irish language in legal proceedings”. Would that, for example, require there always be a judge who can speak the language?

Northern Ireland has 32 judges of county court level or above. For the proper administration of justice, such a judge would have to be fluent in the language, which would put them in the 1% of most proficient speakers.

Even to have a single such fluent judge would require positive discrimination (it could not be assumed to happen on the basis of probability). If there was always to be an Irish speaker judge at high court level or above (of which there are 14) an even higher degree of positive discrimination would be needed.

The fourth 2015 provision is not only to create an Irish language commissioner but to create a summary offence of refusing to co-operate with such a commissioner. If 9% of adults in NI speak Irish but 40+% of votes go to nationalist parties it is clear that a comfortable majority of nationalists can’t speak the language,

Presumably such non speakers would not support such an offence of failing to co-operate with a commissioner, whose role is to enforce a language that they do not themselves speak?

The fifth provision calls not only for affirmative action in favour of Irish speakers to the civil service and public bodies, it calls for all such bodies (eg the police) to “put into effect the official language status of Irish”.

In other words the PSNI would have a joint English and Irish name.

Do, for example, Alliance supporters of an act support such dual naming?

The eighth provision is for bilingual roadsigns “to have the Irish content on a par with English”. The only possible ultimate outcome of this is that every single road sign is replaced with one that has both languages to the same degree of prominence.

The next time you travel from Belfast to Londonderry or Larne to Enniskillen or any long distance journey note how many signs you pass, and consider how expensive such a replacement will be and how it will change utterly the feel of Northern Ireland (as is intended).

Do moderate supporters of a standalone act think this is necessary, and – if they do not speak Irish – why?

The final provision is to guarantee right to education through the medium of Irish.

Do moderate supporters of legislation believe, for example, that every school in NI should be required to provide Irish language teaching, even if there is no demand (as is plainly the case in schools across the Province)?

If they do not speak Irish, why do they think so?

The extreme 2015 proposals will never come to pass but the mere fact of them damages the goodwill that there is towards Irish among moderate unionists.

They illustrate how some people intend to use an act in a thoroughly divisive way.

Note that no legislation that would enforce on the whole of Northern Ireland any facet of culture that is as overwhelmingly linked to unionism as the Irish language is now to nationalism has ever been proposed.

No such legislation would be proposed by unionists and there would be uproar if it was. The mere suggestion would kill it dead forever.

Yet there was no such uproar over the 2015 Sinn Fein Irish language proposals.

Their radical nature raises reasonable doubts in the minds of non nationalists about the very concept of an act, and how even a modest act might be used by some republicans as a stepping stone to more radical rules.

Moderate supporters of a standalone Irish language act might perhaps want to turn their ire on hardline advocates of aggressive and triumphalist language provisions, and the damage they have done to the prospects of milder legislation, instead of always scolding those who have entirely reasonable reservations about such an act.

See below for 2015 SF language proposals

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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Proposals put out for consultation by the then Sinn Fein culture minister Caral Ni Chuilin in 2015.

1. Irish to be defined as an official language in the north in such a way as to guarantee services through Irish on a par with those available through English.

2. Provision conferring the right to speak the Irish language in legal proceedings in the north.

3. Provision to require the Irish and English languages to be treated on the basis of equality in the conduct of the proceedings of the Assembly.

4. Provision to create the position of an Irish Language Commissioner – (to, among other responsibilities and powers) ensure that the Irish language is treated no less favourably than the English language. Will include power to initiate prosecutions for a newly created summary offence of refusing or failing to co-operate with the work of the Irish Language Commissioner.

5. All state and semi-state bodies, organisations, institutions, local authorities, private finance initiatives, Assembly and bodies/committees thereof, the courts, the police service to promote Irish by recognising and putting into effect the official language status of Irish and the official Gaeltacht status of any so designated areas. Including: provision for affirmative action in favour of Irish speakers in recruitment to the Civil Service and other public bodies.

6. Provision that all public bodies be required to produce schemes, which set out how Irish language services will be provided.

7. Definition of conditions for recognition of Gaeltacht areas, both rural and urban.

8. Provision for bilingual roadsigns to have the Irish content on a par with English.

9. Provision to guarantee the right to education through the medium of Irish.