The political parties that demand an Irish language act cannot themselves speak it

Sinn Fein's northern leader, Michelle O'Neill and party colleague John O'Dowd
. They were two of the 19 Stormont candidates in the party, a majority of them, whose knowledge of Irish was limited to words and phrases
Sinn Fein's northern leader, Michelle O'Neill and party colleague John O'Dowd . They were two of the 19 Stormont candidates in the party, a majority of them, whose knowledge of Irish was limited to words and phrases

In the debate about a proposed Irish language act (ILA) one important piece of evidence appears to have been largely overlooked.

I refer to a survey published in The Irish News on February 20 of the state of knowledge of Irish among candidates in the then forthcoming assembly election.

SDLP Stormont candidates at a manifesto Launch in February.

In a survey, only one candidate had fluency in Irish; one had near fluency. Two candidates boasted conversational ability and 17 stated they had words and phrases. Picture: Philip Magowan / PressEye

SDLP Stormont candidates at a manifesto Launch in February. In a survey, only one candidate had fluency in Irish; one had near fluency. Two candidates boasted conversational ability and 17 stated they had words and phrases. Picture: Philip Magowan / PressEye

The results of this survey are most interesting.

Knowledge of Irish among those who responded to the survey was divided into five categories: Fluent, Nearly Fluent, Conversational, Some Words and Phrases and No Knowledge.

It is hardly surprising that no members of the UUP, the DUP and the TUV – the parties which oppose an Irish language act – claimed to possess fluency, near fluency, conversational ability or even words and phrases.

All replied that they had no knowledge.

Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw, centre, pictured at an event last month with Gerry Adams and others demanding an Irish language act. She was one of the Alliance assembly candidates to have no knowledge of Irish.

Picture by Philip Magowan/PressEye

Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw, centre, pictured at an event last month with Gerry Adams and others demanding an Irish language act. She was one of the Alliance assembly candidates to have no knowledge of Irish. Picture by Philip Magowan/PressEye

We now come to those parties which support an act.

The Green Party had no candidates with fluency, near fluency or conversational ability; 16 had words and phrases and two no knowledge at all.

Among the candidates for People Before Profit none boasted fluency or near fluency; two said they had conversational ability, sixteen claimed to know words and phrases and one had no knowledge.

No Alliance candidate out of 21 questioned claimed fluency; one claimed near fluency and two conversational ability; 12 had words and phrases and six no knowledge.

Sinn Fein hold their candidate launch in February for the assembly election in March led by Michelle O'Neill. Of 34 candidates later questioned in a survey, five claimed fluency in Irish; five had near fluency; five said had conversational ability. Nineteen claimed words and phrases. 

Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye.com

Sinn Fein hold their candidate launch in February for the assembly election in March led by Michelle O'Neill. Of 34 candidates later questioned in a survey, five claimed fluency in Irish; five had near fluency; five said had conversational ability. Nineteen claimed words and phrases. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye.com

The last category – no knowledge – includes Paula Bradshaw who was photographed recently as a supporter of an Irish language act along with members of other parties. When Ms Bradshaw hears phrases such as An Tanaiste or Dail Eireann or Board Failte she might be at a loss to know whether Irish is being spoken or Serbo-Croat or Xhosa or Urdu.

Matters are, I fear, hardly any better in the SDLP. Only one member claimed fluency; the same figure was counted under near fluency.

A mere two candidates boasted conversational ability and 17 stated they had words and phrases.

Most members of the SDLP were, one supposes, educated at schools where Irish was taught. What were they doing in class? Did they not enjoy being taught Irish?

Should it not have been their dearest aim to learn that ancient tongue?

And what of Sinn Fein – that party whose very name is Irish? (For the benefit of those politicians who demand an ILA but do not speak Irish, Sinn Fein means ‘Ourselves Alone’).

Surely the party which has declared that an Irish language act is essential and that no deal can be reached which does not include such a statute must have had no candidates without a fluent knowledge of their ancestral language?

How could any member of Sinn Fein admit to ignorance of the tongue? I am afraid that I have to tell readers of The News Letter that things are not as they should be in Sinn Fein.

Of 34 Sinn Fein candidates questioned a mere five claimed fluency; the same number boasted near fluency; and just five said they had conversational ability.

Nineteen claimed words and phrases but what sort of a boast is that? Many of us – though not, I fear, some of the ILA advocates – know what is meant by Board Na Mona or Seanad Eireann or An Taoiseach.

No Sinn Fein member claimed no knowledge of Irish – not even the stupidest among them.

Shame on Sinn Fein! What were its candidates doing at school?

Did they fall asleep during Irish language lessons?

Did they mitch classes (to use a good Elizabethan English word which long survived in Ulster speech)?

Did they find Irish at school boring or even – one shudders at the thought – irrelevant or detestable? Whence comes their enthusiasm for a language of which so many of them know so little?

The roll of dishonour of Sinn Fein candidates who know only words and phrases includes Fra McCann, Alex Maskey, Oliver McMullan, Peter Dorran, Michelle O’Neill, Cathal Boylan, Conor Murphy, John O’Dowd, Michaela Boyle and Declan McAleer.

Should not Sinn Fein abandon all talk of an Irish language act until its members can set the rest of a good example in knowledge of Irish?

Until then – to adapt Attlee’s rebuke to Harold Laski – a period of silence on their part would be in order.

C.D.C. Armstrong, Belfast BT12