Treasure the Irish language – but also be wary of overreach

A letter from John Gemmell:

By John Gemmell
Wednesday, 4th August 2021, 5:11 pm
Letter to the editor
Letter to the editor

Like many unionists, I have no problem with the Irish language, which is a treasure. But, I worry about those who would manipulate it for political aims. There can also be subtle, unintended consequences in the form of choices made by ordinary citizens, once a bilingual society becomes the norm.

Dr James Dingley (platform, July 31) does people in NI a great service in sharing his knowledge of the Welsh experience.

I must agree with him that a certain elitism is growing around the Welsh language. I am sure it does not contribute to a happy society in a country that is only a few miles away from my house, and has always been a part of my life.

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I joined the Civil Service about 40 years ago, and was released back into the community seven years ago, hence my relative recent freedom to speak my mind.

Starting work in Mid Wales, I was immediately despatched to Cardiff for a few months of training. I stayed at the far end of Cathedral Road, walking to the office in the fine city centre every day.

I was amused, daily, by a stereotypical procession of Volvos, dropping off well-groomed little children at what must have been a bilingual nursery for the seriously well-heeled.

The 1980s Cardiff middle-class was ensuring that their little ones would not be disadvantaged in the jobs market, by making them bilingual, whether they liked it or not.

Meanwhile, further north in the Valleys, working-class English-speaking Welsh people were excluded from these niceties.

At work I soon saw hints of linguistic divisions, even in a lovely and happy office full of good people. There is, for example, a town called Llandrindod Wells, just Llandrindod in Welsh.

I would often see, long ago, on paperwork within the office, the “Wells” part of the name scribbled out furiously in angry black ink.

I am old enough to have signed the Official Secrets Act, or at least a flimsy one page extract. But, I bravely risk telling this little story because it reminds us what a divisive issue language can be, if mismanaged.

Wales, and Welsh, are one of Europe’s best kept secrets. They need a higher profile, and frankly I prefer the country to England.

But, linguistic divisions must be carefully managed to control meddling by extremists, and separately, to avoid the emergence of new elites.

There is some kind of lesson here for Northern Ireland – in developing a sound Irish language policy please apply the “Volvo test” and the “crossing out of place names” test.

John Gemmell