Alliance councillor: Why we backed an Irish language officer for Belfast

At Belfast City Hall, above, Stormont and Westminster, Alliance makes decisions with the best interests of the community
At Belfast City Hall, above, Stormont and Westminster, Alliance makes decisions with the best interests of the community

The Morning View (Irish language vote in Belfast is a clue as to what awaits NI, May 3) attempted to use a vote on the Irish language in Belfast to suggest Alliance holding the balance of power at City Hall could only be negative.

It is hard to understand how decisions based on facts and evidence rather than the tried and tested ‘them and us’ politics could be seen as anything but positive.

Letter to the editor

Letter to the editor

And this is how Alliance operates – at City Hall, at the Assembly and at Westminster we make decisions with the best interests of the whole community in sight.

So, two months ago, when the DUP and PUP expressed concerns about the need to incentivise groups to join the Council Bonfire scheme, which costs ratepayers substantially more than the new language policy, we were happy to back them.

Likewise, on Tuesday night we backed a public consultation on a language diversity policy –not an Irish language policy, but a scheme set to celebrate the range of languages and dialects heard across the city.

When it came to the issue of a language officer, we again looked at the facts and followed the evidence – a trail which led us to support an Irish language officer, a decision which has since been the target of attacks from Unionist Councillors.

But our decision was threefold; only the Irish language sector asked for an officer based on the high number of local Irish speakers; The cost will be less to ratepayers as Foras na Gaeilge will foot half the bill for the post; and it was Sinn Fein who backed Alliance, altering their proposal to reflect our calls for providing additional resources for all language sectors if the need was there.

Unfortunately Unionist Councillors cannot move forward.

Instead they continue their decade-old narrative, complaining that Republicans use the language as a weapon. Yet instead of embracing Irish and disarming them, they aid the process by responding in ways that only serve to further sectarianise the debate.

Over the course of this year it’s become clear this outdated view is not held by people on the ground.

People like East Belfast loyalist Linda Ervine who put forward the argument against a single language officer by likening it to ‘expecting the home economics teacher to teach Science and history’, to incoming Presbyterian Moderator, Rev Noble McNeely warning against attempts to fit languages into sectarian boxes.

Certainly, some republicans have tried to create a narrative WHERE THEY claim ownership of the language; however, my response to the likes of Gerry Adams at election speeches in the Nineties, was not to run away, but challenge the narrative by going to my local night class and learning Irish. Maybe that is because I am confident and comfortable with my multi-faceted identity.

Alliance prefers to stick to the facts of a shared history and in recognising that the Irish language is for all we don’t regard supporting its promotion as a sectarian matter.

That is what this policy is all about achieving and we believe that it can make a new chapter in creating a shared appreciation of languages. The policy is a good start and as the Irish phrase- tύs maith leath na hoibre- that is half the battle.

Michael Long, Alliance councillor, Belfast