By Moore Holmes
Irish language is under the spotlight as the central issue which determines whether Stormont now stands or falls. Stands or falls is a little misleading mind you, considering that Stormont fell in January and eight months on is still no closer to a resurrection.
What supposedly stands in its way is a commitment to an independent Irish language act from the DUP. Gerry Adams made it abundantly clear that without a stand-alone Irish language act, Sinn Fein will refuse to take part in any Stormont assembly. Therefore, without a DUP concession on the very legislation Arlene Foster claimed she would never support, Stormont is destined to remain inactive.
It is quite hard to see who will come out on top in this one. Sinn Fein claim only an Irish language act will bring them back into government, whilst DUP say they will never support it. How both parties can save face and still get a government up and running remains to be seen.
This is all assuming of course that Sinn Fein actually want a government functioning in the first place. It is perfectly reasonable that the upcoming uncertainties of Brexit, and the potential of a Conservative-DUP partnership in Direct Rule presents Sinn Fein a prosperous window to lobby for re-unification with the southern state.
Unless Sinn Fein are able to return to their electorate with a significant win in the form of an Irish language act, then the prospect of not being in government for Sinn Fein, and therefore not directly responsible for whatever decisions are made in NI, present an opportunistic platform.
After all, the Sinn Fein President is on record saying, “never waste a good chaos.” And the current calamitous climate leaves plenty of chaos to play with.
Independent of Sinn Fein’s games, I am of the opinion that a stand-alone Irish language act is currently unjustifiable. Furthermore, for those who disagree with my first position, I thereby consider the Irish language act an inadequate reason to postpone much-needed government in Northern Ireland.
My argument is therefore twofold. First, even if you’re in favour of an Irish language act, the obvious controversial nature of its existence, along with the consequences of a continued deadlock at Stormont, demonstrates it is unfit to ultimately determine the existence of an executive in Northern Ireland.
When Gerry Adams said, “there won’t be an Assembly without an Acht na Gaelige,” he clarified to all that Irish language was the deciding factor in the resumption of Stormont. Simply put, if an act was not on the table, then Sinn Fein would not be taking a seat.
This hard-line perspective however does not appreciate how controversial an Irish language act really is. Politically speaking, in spite of the wonderful snapshot of SDLP, Sinn Fein, Alliance and Green Party members cosying up together in support of Irish language, the legislation does not have cross-community support. All unionist parties oppose the act and much of the PUL community have major apprehensions about it. This alone is enough to “kick the can down the road” until more cross-community support is secured.
Frankly, part of the reason why Sinn Fein are seeking an upfront commitment from the DUP is because they recognise, due to Unionist opposition, the political process will result in failure. This means Sinn Fein are sidestepping the official political procedure for proposing and approving legislation and using their political leverage to force the DUP’s hand.
The lack of cross-community support and political homogeneity suggests Sinn Fein and Irish language activists have much work to do to present Irish as something all/most citizens can identify with, rather than forcing Irish into all corners of a society who arguably do not want it, and obviously do not need it. After all, the PUL community still recall Sinn Fein’s Danny Morrison’s infamous claim that “every word of Irish spoken is like another bullet being fired in the struggle for Irish freedom.”
Time would be much better served lobbying for Irish language, increasing awareness and continuing language projects rather than using it as the make-or-break bargaining chip in Stormont negotiations, and flogging it all the way to Direct Rule.
Looking back at our most recent history – a history of ceasefires and decommissioning sagas, all of which it took to achieve a working government in Northern Ireland, you cannot help but seem perplexed that Sinn Fein would halt the process for a stand-alone Irish language act. Not to say Irish language is somehow unimportant, but moreover it should not determine the fate of those institutions which took so long and cost so much to implement.
The second part of my argument goes a step further. I contend that in fact, irrespective of the ongoing political stalemate, a stand-alone Irish language act in Northern Ireland is economically unwarrantable, statistically unnecessary and ominously unequal.
An Irish language act would cost the country a measure of money which we cannot rationalise. The ongoing cuts to health and education are crippling public services and renewed investment is required simply to maintain their current standards. Anyone who disagrees neglects just how much both departments are currently under stress.
Pobal, a popular Irish language organisation in Northern Ireland, described a fellow Irish language group’s estimation for an act of around £20million as “unrealistically low.” Sinn Fein have called for a language act similar to that of Scotland and Wales. Scotland currently pays roughly £40 million a year whilst Wales spends around £150 million a year, with most of that going toward their native TV-channel.
Meanwhile, the NHS is facing £70 million in cuts, NI waiting lists are the worst in the UK, housing services face significant challenges, and education resources are shoring up. It seems somewhat ludicrous that Irish language tops the list in Northern Ireland’s order of priorities. The money spent on bilingual signs (which would be demanded on every public office building), Irish translators, Irish documentations, Irish local authorities officer, an Irish ministerial department, Irish employee training programs, the reshuffling of public services to accommodate Irish in all elements and the recruitment drive for additional Irish speaking workers is better spent elsewhere, on services in greater need of the money which have a bigger impact on society.
Statistically Irish language also does not have the demand the current political merry-go round would have you believe. According to the 2011 census, less than 1% of people in Northern Ireland consider Irish their main spoken language. 11% of people can speak some Irish but that is only 5% more than those who can speak Ulster-Scots. This hardly merits the sort of stand-alone attention Sinn Fein and others demand, considering 90% of people in the country have no knowledge in Irish whatsoever.
It is without question that most of the nationalist community would support the implementation of the Irish language, and probably a portion of the Unionist community, however the statistics merely demonstrate that an Irish language act is rather unnecessary and its absence is not the sort of injustice activists would have you think. In fact, more people actively speak Polish every day in Northern Ireland than Irish.
Lastly, inequality and the redundancy of rights for Irish native speakers is used as the biggest incentive for the economically burdensome and statistically unnecessary Irish language act. However, it would be remiss to disregard the very real equality issues which would present themselves with the implementation of an Irish language act.
The Irish language is almost exclusively spoken by Catholics. Therefore, the inevitable impact of applying Irish language into our public institutions means Irish speakers will be in higher demand to fill many of the new roles required. Thus, creating a sub-market in employment whereas Catholics are more privileged than Protestants and therefore more likely to acquire jobs.
Pobal put in plain sight when they stated that public bodies, legislated by an Irish language act, would be “taking appropriate measures to recruit Irish-speaking staff, including advertising all posts bilingually and ensuring that Irish is designated as an advantage for posts when this would be appropriate.”
Following predictable reviews by the Equality commission, it is not insurmountable to imagine, like the Police Service of Northern Ireland when it previously was obliged to employ more Catholics, that public services would face obligations to employ x number of Irish speakers, further privileging Catholics over Protestants, and Irish speakers over non-Irish speakers.
This in itself is a knock-down argument against an Irish language act. It is flaunted as an act to balance rights in Northern Ireland. Yet, incorporating Irish into our public institutions will ultimately imbalance rights in Northern Ireland creating a system through which Catholics are generally more privileged than Protestants. An Irish language act would become the very problem it claims to solve.
Additionally, equality issues must also be addressed with reference to the Belfast Agreement 1998. A stand-alone Irish language act would in turn discriminate not just against Protestants, but also against Ulster-Scots. The Belfast Agreement recognises both Ulster-Scots and Irish language as historic languages of the land and assumes equal treatment of the two.
It states, “all participants recognise the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity, including in Northern Ireland, the Irish language, Ulster-Scots and the languages of the various ethnic communities, all of which are part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland.”
Linguistic diversity is important in Northern Ireland, however the sort of respect and understanding referenced above does not include the institutional supremacy of one language over the other.
All in all, it is clear that an Irish language is both counterproductive to Northern Ireland and unfit to determine the well-being of Stormont. I am against an Irish language act not because I am sectarian, nor that I do not think Irish is important, but because an Irish language act is statistically uncalled for, and it raises serious economic and equality challenges.
An Irish language act is an expensive project for the 3.74% of people who can actually speak, read and write in Irish. But for those who do have knowledge of Irish, of which nearly all our Catholic, it privileges them with more opportunities than non-Irish speakers.
Jim McVeigh has continually fed out the party line, “let’s not sacrifice one person’s rights for the sake of the other.” Except when its Protestant Non-Irish speaker’s rights of course.