Sinn Fein’s blueprint for a stand-alone Irish language act has parallels with Irish language policies imposed in post-independence Ireland.
Today’s reaction to the act from people in the Republic of Ireland might be ‘Been there, done that, failed’.
At huge cost to the taxpayers.
Today it is estimated the cost of force- feeding Irish is €1.2 billion a year, which includes teaching, printing government publications, road signage, maintenance of Gaeltacht areas and recruitment of Irish translators.
After over 90 years of imposing policies to make Irish the native tongue of Ireland, less than 20,000 people are native speakers.
The 2016 census found that 70% of the population ‘can’t speak or don’t speak Irish’.
Why? It’s simple: for pragmatic reasons people do not want to speak it and turned their backs on it well before independence, unlike the Israelis who chose to speak Hebrew and protect their language and culture.
It was Archbishop McQuaid who told Eamon de Valera in the 1950s to give up on imposing Irish on children in schools as when they came home, their parent(s) spoke to them in English. De Valera replied, ‘The experiment is not over yet’.
I suggest 50 years later it is well over.
Much has changed in Ireland in recent years as successive governments came to realise their draconian policies were not achieving their objective.
Irish is still compulsory in schools up to Leaving Certificate (approx. A level exam) but the last Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, called for compulsion to stop at Junior Certificate level (approx., O level exam). But resistance from hard liners prevailed, partly for monetary reasons.
Irish is no longer required in the civil service and the Garda Siochana, though people in the legal profession must be proficient. But the three National Universities insist on Leaving Certificate level Irish to gain entrance, not Trinity College, Dublin nor DCU.
What about the experience of Protestant ex-unionists in post-independence Ireland? Although a few championed the language, prominently Douglas Hyde, the great majority had no interest.
They were opposed to compulsion which came in 1922 at national school level and 1924 in secondary schools. The Canadian historian, Kurt Bowen wrote that as far as Protestants were concerned, ‘No other policy provoked such widespread and sustained criticism’.
Sinn Fein wants to make Irish an official language.
Arguably this will lead to it being used as ‘an ideological weapon for nationalist and fundamentalist Catholics, feared by Protestants’ in Ireland, in the words of Irish historian Tom Garvin.
And in the early years of the Free State the language was used as a weapon to transfer authority.
According to Myles Dillon in 1922, ‘All the cultural institutions of the country were in the hands of the Protestants ... All must now be changed: a new administrative class was to be established, and the language was one of the means to be used…I believe that far from helping the language movement, this turning of the screws has destroyed its value as a form of allegiance.’
Does Sinn Fein refuse to accommodate the reality of an English speaking Northern Ireland?
The 2011 census tells us that only 3.74% of people aged three and over ‘speak, write, read or understand Irish’. And as for Ulster-Scots, there are 0.94% in this category.
So why bother including it in the act? Tokenism.
When the Free State government implemented policies to make Irish the native tongue after 1922, only 17% of the population spoke it.
Desmond FitzGerald, Garret’s father, thought it was too late to revive it and was proved correct.
In effect, it had become the dying language of a rural peasantry in outlying areas of Ireland.
I suggest it is not so much a dying language in Northern Ireland, as a language for scholars and activists.
Finally, who is to pay for all the proposals in the act? The long suffering English taxpayers, who cares less.
No attempt is made to cost employing civil servants, having Irish spoken in local authorities, courts, PSNI and setting up Gaeltacht areas.
Simon Coveney, the new Fine Gael Minister for Foreign Affairs, no doubt supported by his Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, seem to support this proposed act, in defiance of the spirit of the Belfast Agreement.
Leo Varadkar claimed to support the brilliant diversity and decency of Canadian pluralism when he just met Justin Trudeau.
I live in Canada, an Irish-Canadian, and say to him, get real Leo!
• Robin Bury is the author of ‘Buried Lives: The Protestants of Southern Ireland’ (from The History Press Ireland).
He is the son of the Church of Ireland Dean of Cloyne, was born in India and grew up in Co Cork. He was educated in Ireland where he was taught Irish for 10 years. He was a teacher and later worked for Coras Trachtala, the Irish Export Board, and now lives in Toronto, Canada
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