Given the recent impasse in restoring Stormont, a reasonable question to ask is, just what exactly is SF trying to achieve via an Irish language act?
If it is about respect, then that was covered in the Belfast Agreement. There was a commitment in the agreement to ‘facilitate and encourage the use of the language in speech and writing in public and private life where there is appropriate demand.’ That phrase, ‘appropriate demand’ is a fundamental point.
Given recent statements it would appear that Sinn Fein is trying to create a bi-lingual society in Northern Ireland. It is almost as if there is an attempt to recreate a ‘revival’ in the sense of what occurred in the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century with the Gaelic revival, as envisaged by De Valera, and if that is the case, then we all really do need to stop and think.
Over a century ago, as political demands for Home Rule and independence grew, nationalist political leaders cast around for that which would distinguish them from Britain and the British and seized upon the Irish language. The founders of the new Irish Free State sought to promote a Gaelic revival, including making the language compulsory in schools and for public sector jobs.
Michelle O’Neill says that an Irish language act would ‘go no further’ than corresponding legislation in the Republic. She conveniently ignores the fact that for almost a century, the Republic has spent millions of taxpayers’ money and utilised millions of teaching hours making children learn Irish, only to find that after all that effort, English is still the mother tongue of the Republic. The revival has been an expensive failure in the Republic and we have no wish to replicate it in Northern Ireland.
The fact is that today even in the Gaeltacht areas, the use of Irish is in decline. Attempts to conduct business in Dublin using Irish would be met with incomprehension.
It is being quietly phased out in terms of language qualification for civil service jobs as the people of the Republic accept the reality of life in the early 21st century.
Ireland – north and south – is, as Enda Kenny said in March 2015, ‘an English speaking island’.
English is a language which not only unites all the people of Northern Ireland, it acts as a passport to travel and trade worldwide. It is the language of trade and business in the UK and Republic of Ireland. It is the most common second language throughout Europe and it is the language of the USA. When China, Japan and India trade with Europe, English is the language that is used.
Sinn Fein’s talk of rights and equality in relation to the Irish language are a complete smokescreen. Having politicised the language in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein are using it as a weapon in a cultural war.
The plans for 10 per cent of civil service jobs being set aside for Irish speakers, a language commissioner with the powers of a high court judge, a summary offence of non-compliance and the erection of hundreds of bi-lingual road signs across Northern Ireland are unnecessary.
I do not have an issue with respecting the culture of others and believe that the Irish language can be promoted, valued and cherished, but expectations must be realistic. Problems will arise when attempts are made to impose a language on a population which does not speak it, understand it, or claim ownership of it.
Given that it could not succeed after a century of generous support in the state which claimed ownership of it, why should anyone expect Irish to succeed in Northern Ireland?
Is this really an issue which should be permitted to block the restoration of devolved government?
Robin Swann is leader of the Ulster Unionist Party