Top DUP political figures previously denounced a Sinn Fein minister’s ideas for an Irish language act as “reprehensible”, “ludicrous”and “wrong” the News Letter can reveal – with one of them branding Irish “a dead language”.
The trio of MLAs, plus MP Jim Shannon, all strongly condemned the proposals for an act which were put forward in 2015 by former Sinn Fein culture minister Caral Ni Chuilin.
The News Letter has now combed through the 308 pages of responses to the consultation which was carried out into those proposals.
(For exactly what the proposals were, see this link).
Last week it appeared that the DUP may be softening its previous hardline opposition to any such act, with former party leader Peter Robinson issuing a surprise statement which said an Irish language act is a “legitimate” aspiration – but suggesting that Ulster-Scots should be put on a similar footing alongside it.
Such sentiments were echoed on Wednesday by Gregory Campbell, who has famously been derisive towards the language.
Whilst neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein have been willing to divulge exactly what the republican party is demanding in its Irish language act currently, the responses to the 2015 proposals which have now been unearthed from the four DUP figures shed light on the depth of opposition at that time.
Arguably the strongest-worded response letter came from South Antrim MLA Trevor Clarke.
He dubbed the proposed act “pointless and dictatorial”.
“It’s a dead language,” he said. “Other than people using it for interest purposes which I have no objection to.
“I believe people who want to use this language or any other language should fund it themselves.”
A similarly tough-talking reaction came from DUP MP Jim Shannon, representing Strangford.
Mr Shannon (who took his recent parliamentary oath in both English and Ulster-Scots, and who also speaks Irish) said in his letter: “When the Executive is being forced to find efficiency savings in every department, to spend this money on something which is not a priority for the huge majority of people in Northern Ireland – no matter what their political affiliation – is reprehensible to say the least and in many eyes, including my own, is foolishness.
“There is no justification for this, and whilst I am a supporter of ensuring that culture and heritage is preserved, this is more than a step too far – this is a marathon too far.”
In a short letter filled with mistakes, North Down MLA Alex Easton declared himself “absolute baffled (sic) as to why there is the need for an Irish Language (sic) as I don’t believe there is much support for one”.
He also said “at a time when there are so many cuts to Government Departments that this is just a sheer waist (sic) of public money”.
And Jonathan Craig, MLA for Lagan Valley, said he objected “in the strongest possible terms” to the proposed act.
He wrote: “At a time of financial constraint and reduction in her own department with many groups facing stringent cuts it is ludicrous to contemplate spending vital resources on a bill that does not have cross-community support.”
The News Letter attempted to contact all four politicians to see if their views have changed in the last two years.
An aide to Mr Shannon referred the paper to the party’s central press office.
Mr Easton and Mr Clarke did not respond at time of writing.
Only Mr Craig was reached directly.
In response to whether he had changed his views, he said: “No I haven’t. I don’t believe for one second that it has cross-community support – and especially if it’s going to be a discriminatory process which actually forces people to speak Irish before they gain employment, which seems to be the latest Sinn Fein demand.”
He was referring to claims that during the recent Stormont talks, Sinn Fein had raised the issue of a 10% quota of civil servants being able to speak Irish.
“I’d have loved to see the reaction out there if, all of a sudden, I said to you: ‘10% of the civil service would have to be members of the Orange Order’,” he said.
“You’d be drummed out of the country. You know – it’s ludicrous.”
He said that some kind of overarching cultural act, taking in traditions such as Ulster-Scots, would be “a lot more palatable” than the act about Irish alone which Sinn Fein wants.
This, he said, would be a “fairly normal” view within the party.
HOW WIDESPREAD IS IRISH?
The results of the last full-scale census in 2011 showed that 3.7% of Northern Irish residents aged three or over could speak, read, write and understand Irish.
However, a survey for the Department of Communities in 2015/16 (which surveyed 3,285 people) found that only 1% of people aged 16-and-over in Northern Ireland “can understand complicated spoken sentences, so could understand programmes in Irish
on the radio or television”.
Meanwhile it also found that 2% “can understand a conversation in Irish conducted at a simple level” – such as street directions.