The Continued Denial of Irish Language Rights
As Northern Ireland marks its centenary, so too does it mark a hundred years of Irish citizens seeking equality. Through persistent suppression and marginalisation, such important cultural touchstones as this island’s indigenous language have been institutionally stifled for generations. Time and again, Irish language rights are revisited and addressed – and time and again, Irish language rights are stalled, blocked, or denied entirely by Unionist politicians. Despite signing agreements to help preserve Irish language, political Unionism habitually flouts its obligations to uphold terms, denying even the most basic status for the language, not dissimilar to Westminster’s selective interpretations of their own obligations to international treaties. Politicising and weaponizing their duty to uphold their obligations to language preservation as a “Republican concession”, Political Unionism continues to whip up hysteria surrounding the imagined fallout of allowing basic legal standing for Irish language.
Opposition from the Democratic Unionist Party towards the Irish language has long been made clear, with evidence that the cross-community vote – established under the St Andrews Agreement to protect minority rights – has been misused by the party in order to block any progress toward providing status to the language legal standing. Despite the DUP having signed the St. Andrews Agreement in 2007, which outlines legislation for the recognition of Irish language, over a decade later their failure to implement any amendments into law precipitated yet another set of unfulfilled commitments in ‘New Decade, New Approach’. The cultural package of the new agreement was to be implemented within 100 days of its signing. That deadline, as with so many before it, came and passed.
The election of Edwin Poots as leader of the DUP made the possibility of another stand-off over Irish language all but inevitable, however with neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP keen on a snap election, a midnight deal was struck with the British government with the focus of finally implementing the NDNA cultural package. This was a curveball from Sinn Fein, who outmanoeuvred the DUP by unprecedentedly enlisting the British government to step-in, should Stormont not deliver by the end of September. Faced with the prospect of having to uphold the terms of their agreement, the DUP swiftly removed Edwin Poots as leader, and stridently oppose Westminster’s commitment to legislate the agreed upon legislation for Irish language. So-continues the familiar making and breaking of reconciliatory commitments in Northern Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement envisioned a rights-based society, centred on the principles of equality, parity of esteem, and mutual respect. That an Irish language act has ever been – let alone continues to be – considered a point of contention demonstrates just how far we are from realising that vision. Irish language is the indigenous language of this island, it should be respected in the same manner as all indigenous languages or dialects, be they Scots, Maori, or Australian Aboriginal. The preservation of indigenous languages should always be considered an invaluable cause, yet in Northern Ireland, calls to preserve such a unique aspect of Irish cultural history are deliberately warped into a political pulpit from which tensions and fear can continue to be stoked. This status-quo isn’t going to perpetuate itself; but we can surely leave it to political Unionist leaders to continue celebrating their own traditions.
Identities are shifting in Northern Ireland, particularly among the Good Friday Agreement-generation, with 36% of 18-24 years olds in the recent Northern Irish Life and Times Survey describing themselves as Northern Irish, 34% Irish and only 14% British. There has also been a significant rise in those claiming their birth right to be a part of the Irish nation, between 2010-2019, more than 800,000 Irish passports were issued to people in the North, in tandem with an uptake in Irish medium education. The cultural history of this island plays an indisputable role in the development of personal identity, and in turn, the heritage of each half of the population should be embraced and protected. The Irish language is not just for one community, or one section of society – it’s a part of this island, and it’s for everyone.
In an effort to break down perceptions, Protestant-raised language rights activist Linda Ervine formed Turas, an Irish language project. Founded in 2011, her objective was to “connect adults from Protestant communities to their own history with the Irish language”. Alongside other similarly motivated initiatives focusing on embracing the language, Northern Ireland has seen a considerable shift in attitudes in once-impenetrable Unionist strongholds such as East Belfast. The opposition from unionist politicians is out-of-step with the people.
‘New Decade, New Approach’ does not provide a standalone Irish language act. However, if implemented, the intended legislation will be incredibly meaningful for those who seek to preserve Irish heritage. Commenting on the implementation of Irish language legislation, Principal of Bunscoil Phobal Feirste Séamus Ó Tuama said, “It would be recognition psychologically for the Irish language community that they’re loved, that they’re protected, that they’re recognised. We’ve been battling and fighting from day one…”
The continued denial of Irish language harkens back to a colonial mindset wherein anything indigenous was seen as a threat to be squashed. But this is a new time, a new generation, shirking off the ‘never, never, never’ mantra that once crippled this region and aching for the rights-based society we were once promised.