‘The only Irish unionists saw during Troubles was tiocfaidh ar la’

Author and Linguist Dr Ian Malcolm
Author and Linguist Dr Ian Malcolm

A long-time Irish language enthusiast has said he “totally understands” the coldness felt by many fellow unionists towards the language, warning that Sinn Fein’s current approach could make matters worse.

Dr Ian Malcolm further told the News Letter that Irish should not be treated the same way as Welsh or Scottish gaelic, simply because the language has been made into such a controversial issue in the Province throughout the years.

Dr Malcolm, a Lurgan-born former News Letter sub-editor, has a PhD in the Irish language, teaches it at Stranmillis College in south Belfast, and several years ago wrote a book (called ‘Towards Inclusion’) about promoting Irish to Protestants.

The Protestant unionist, whose hobbies include collecting old Orange songs, said he is someone who has “never veered towards the green side of a ballot paper in my life”.

But he added Protestants had a long historic involvement with Irish, and it is “sad to see the language dragged through the mud in terms of political debates in this century”.

“I totally understand why so many Protestants feel antipathy towards the Irish language,” he said, however.

During the Troubles, “the only encounter most Protestants had with the Irish language would have been whenever they were perhaps driving through nationalist areas and seeing ‘tiocfaidh ar la’ written on the wall”.

He said the recent apparent move towards a compromise over an Irish language act by the DUP (a move which Sinn Fein had rebuffed) was “fairly major” and showed the party “has taken a great leap forward”.

He added that there had been a lot of “fuzziness” and “smoke and mirrors” around the whole plan for an act, adding: “What needs to happen now of course is that people need to sit down and work out what exactly is going to be in an Irish language act.”

Asked if he, for example, would be in favour of universal dual-language road signs, he said the issue needed to be approached “cautiously”, because they could provoke hostility.

He said the idea of a quota for Irish-speaking civil service recruits – something said to have been raised in multi-party talks earlier in the year – was “most unrealistic”, and that any act should not be “overly costly” at a time public spending is being squeezed.

Asked if Sinn Fein’s approach to the Irish language in recent months had helped or hindered the idea of spreading Irish across the community, he said: “The Irish language is now central stage on the political agenda – there’s no doubt about that.

“But the Sinn Fein approach may not be helpful in terms of cross-community support for an Irish language act, in that obviously many unionists will take the view that the Irish language appears to have been tied or connected to Sinn Fein once again.”

It has been frequently said that legislation covering the promotion of the indigenous languages of Scotland and Wales should spur Northern Ireland on to its own Irish language act.

For example, last Friday Mairtín O Muilleoir had said the DUP’s “refusal to afford Irish language speakers in the North rights which speakers of Welsh, Gaelic and Irish enjoy across these islands is shameful”.

Dr Malcolm said: “I think ultimately we have to realise that Northern Ireland though is a place apart in that language here unfortunately tends to be controversial and has been for quite a long time.

“That level of controversy does not exist in either Wales or Scotland. So we’re talking about something that has to be handled in a different way in Northern Ireland.”