2007-09-28 Eric Heath
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Republicans in Northern Ireland want to encourage talking in Irish through new bill

Roadsign in Irish reading "Caution Children"Roadsign in Irish reading "Caution Children"
After decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, republicans and unionists have been sharing power again since May. But many republicans want official recognition of the Irish language in the province. That, they argue, was part of last year’s St Andrew’s Agreement which paved the way for power sharing. As a result, a draft bill to protect and promote Irish has been drawn up but as Eric Heath reports; unionist politicians say they’ll veto it.

Paul McCann is checking out the breakfast menu at the Irish Cultural Centre on Belfast’s Falls Road. The fact that he’s doing so in Irish reflects this part of the city’s staunchly republican identity. But the Irish language group that Paul works for, Pobol, wants more opportunities and rights for Irish speakers in Northern Ireland. Paul explains why.

“What we want to try and do is ensure that people have the ability to use the language in every aspect of their life – with government, with major companies, with parliament. Opportunities to use the language as a mode of expression are limited and that’s what we’re concerned about”.

Northern Ireland’s department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has issued draft plans which would see the appointment of an Irish language Commissioner and the establishment of Irish language schemes for public bodies. The proposals and public responses to them are still being considered. But the bill needs cross community support in order to be passed by Northern Ireland’s Assembly and the main Unionist Party, the DUP, has already said it will veto the bill. The DUP’s Alastair Ross says his party didn’t agree to the legislation in the run-up to power sharing and says Sinn Fein is simply using language as a political football.

Multinational Sign in English, Scotish and IrishMultinational Sign in English, Scotish and Irish
“Here in Northern Ireland we have an education minister who’s from Sinn Fein, and she’s pushing the Irish language. She is opening Irish medium schools with as little as 12 pupils. Yet at the same time closing state schools with 3, 4 times that many pupils. This is money that’s going in the wrong places. We have a massive need for special education in Northern Ireland to help children who are disadvantaged. That’s where the money should be going to. And even those who are pushing the issue now in Sinn Fein, very few of them can actually speak Irish.”

Irish speakers in Northern Ireland can already tune into Belfast-based Radio Fáilte, read their own newspaper and get an education in Irish. Paul McCann from the language group Pobol, says more than 10% of the population has some knowledge of Irish. The legislation, he says, would simply mirror the Welsh language act and the Gaelic Act in Scotland.

“We’re not asking for these things overnight. What we really would like to see is, you’re building a new road and there’s got to be new signage, come on let’s have them bi-lingual. How can you have a shared future if you don’t share people’s culture? To provide services in another language that’s added value. You’re showing that you’re open.”

But just how open is Northern Irish society? Gordon McCoy is a fluent irish speaker. But he’s Protestant not Catholic - an exception to the rule here in Northern Ireland. Gordon works for the Ultach Trust which promotes the Irish language, but admits that the language issue is extremely sensitive.

Multilingual sign of the ministry of Culture, Art and LeisureMultilingual sign of the ministry of Culture, Art and Leisure
“I live in east Belfast, a very protestant area and on the first day I moved into my new house, the secretary of this organization rang me on my mobile and wanted to discuss something in Irish but because I was on the street and in a protestant area I was afraid to talk Irish to her so I said I’d ring her back when I got into the house. Also if I have tradesmen working in the house from the area, I’ll tend to hide my Irish language books because otherwise people might think I’m a Sinn Fein supporter or the IRA and I could be attacked. So I have to be quite secretive.”

More and more republicans in Northern Ireland are learning and using Irish in their everyday life. Convincing unionists to do the same seems an impossible dream.

So what will happen when the proposed language bill is vetoed by the unionist DUP party? Gordon McCoy doesn’t believe it’ll be the end of the issue. But despite a devolved government, Northern Ireland’s Irish speakers, he says, may well have to rely on the British government to realise their calls for recognition.

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