Steven Agnew: Our support for Irish language should not be confused with support for divisive SF tactics

Green Party leader in NI Steven Agnew MLA, seen in May. Picture by Jonathan Porter/

During the time of the flags protests I spoke in the assembly chamber about being proud to be British, proud to be Irish and proud to be European.

The point I was making is that I do not feel constrained by one identity and that I feel I am stronger and healthier for my diverse lineage.

Steven Agnew MLA (Green Party leader in NI), second from left, with other politicians and activists including Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams TD at an event in Belfast in August to demand a standalone Irish language act. Mr Agnew now says that support for an Irish language act is not the same as support for SF's divisive tactics. Picture: Philip Magowan / PressEye

I am not an Irish speaker however I do not see the language or promotion of it as a threat to me.

Over time I have picked up words and phrases either from friends who are Irish speakers or more often than not, from Irish being spoken in the assembly.

I am pleased to have done so.

The Irish language is intertwined with the history of this island.

Were it to be lost, hundreds of years’ worth of writings, poetry and literature would be lost with it.

I do not know whether my ancestry is British or Irish, in fact my surname ‘Agnew’ is most likely French.

Whether or not Irish is part of my family history is only part of the story, Irish is undoubtedly connected to the place, the environment where I have lived and grown up.

The origin of many of our street names can only be understood through an understanding of Irish.

For similar reasons Greens across Europe have supported protections for indigenous languages and for these reasons the Green Party in Northern Ireland supports an Irish language act.

The language is part of our shared heritage and does not belong to any one community or political ideology. However, supporting the language should not be confused with supporting the divisive tactics used by Sinn Fein, anymore than loyalism should be equated with support for paramilitarism.

When Sinn Fein collapsed the assembly without first putting in place a budget, they brought the country to its knees.

That is not to exonerate the DUP who whose use and abuse of the petition of concern to block everything they dislike has destroyed any notion of partnership in government.

They both must share the blame.

However, I believe that if Sinn Fein were genuine about wanting to restore the institutions they would have put more emphasis on reform of the petition of concern.

Marriage equality, a bill of rights and the Irish language act are all issues that have majority support amongst MLAs and could all be passed through the assembly.

However despite the Green Party and others submitting proposals for reform, they have not been central in the talks.

Even if Sinn Fein are successful in getting an agreement with the DUP without reform of the petition of concern, any return to the assembly would be a return to the status quo. Other equality issues such as reproductive rights, trans rights and the need for a single equality act could all be subject to a DUP veto, should they be able to find two ally MLAs.

The Green Party stands on its own distinct platform and judges each issue on its own merits.

We stand steadfast by our principles which has seen others follow our leadership on issues such as gender equality, LGBTQ rights and climate change.

We do not change our values based on who else chooses to stand alongside us or depending on how the wind is blowing.

I believe that is why we have been able to achieve greater change than our numbers alone would warrant.

• Steven Agnew is Green Party leader in NI and a North Down MLA

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