Protection for Irish schools is becoming hard to justify

Morning View
Morning View

The atmosphere surrounding the Irish language has improved markedly for the better in recent years.

During the Troubles Gaelic became closely associated with republicanism.

A language that had, a century and more ago, been spoken by Presbyterians and other groups, became a tribal symbol.

Use of the Irish language often seemed triumphalist and at times even provocative. Irish language signs were a way of marking territory.

This has not entirely changed of course. But now the wider associations of the language are returning. The widow of the former loyalist David Ervine, Linda, has even run a popular course in east Belfast.

The existence of Irish medium schools is not in itself a problem if the demand is there, and they are not deliberately exclusionary institutions.

But the DUP’s education spokesman Peter Weir is right to say that they should not be “placed on a pedestal” by Sinn Fein’s education minister John O’Dowd.

There is, as Mr Weir notes, a statutory protection to Irish language schools, flowing from the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

The problem is threefold:

First, demand for the schools is very low. Every school that has opened in Northern Ireland with fewer than 70 pupils in recent years has been in the Irish medium sector.

Two, many other schools are being forced to close, often with larger numbers.

Third, there is growing pressure on all public budgets.

Meanwhile, there is widespread desire for integrated education. Many of the famous grammar schools in greater Belfast are in effect integrated.

But Mr O’Dowd is using ‘Shared Education’ as a way to keep the tribal divide and attack grammar schools.

Statutory protection for Irish Medium schools is increasingly hard to justify in the current educational environment.