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.



Comments (16)

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  1. Tom Ultuous says:

    The DUP. The turkeys who campaigned for, cheated for and voted for xmas.

  2. Graham Ennis says:

    Sadly, this is one small gain in a long long battle.
    The UK Goverment has effectively destroyed the Peace treaty, (The Good Friday agreement)and now finds itself stranded in an enclave tht is becoming isolated from the rest of the UK, and backed into a corner. The Unionists will not get a majority at the next ;local election, and will have to concede the first ministership to the Irish population. This has all the makings of a tragedy.
    I can forse a collapse of the power sharing, and possible violence.
    All of this has been caused by the UK Tory Goverment meddling in things it neither understands, or cares about.

    Comments please

    1. Lordmac says:

      When. Once a minority. Was given a vote to become a majority, will this. Be used, one more time..

    2. Gashty McGonnard says:

      I think you may be chasing phantoms, Graham.

      The NI Protocol will be finessed over time until there’s no visible ‘border’ at the ports. Neither Westminster, Brussels, Dublin nor Washington have anything to gain at this stage by aggravating unionist sentiment. None of the parties at Stormont would gain by collapsing powersharing in the current circumstances, either.

      The DUP have marched some extreme elements to the top of the hill over the protocol, but there are already signs of them being marched down again. The sabre rattling was a way for them to save face with their working class base, but DUP also need middle class and rural voters who are more ambiguous about the protocol and very unimpressed with how the party handled Brexit. They’re even starting to make friendlier noises towards lgbt and other (non-nationalist) minorities. We’re going to see a battle for the unaligned/liberal voters in NI in the coming years, over the constitutional question, and violence from the unionist/loyalist side could wreck that for their politicians. (Same goes for the nationalist community)

      Yes, there are some people who would be very annoyed at a ‘greener’ NI (Irish language legislation, possible SF first minister). I just can’t see their wider community letting them jeopardise the future of their union with GB over it.

  3. Ewan Macintyre says:

    In the meantime, there is nothing stopping folk in the north of Ireland from enrolling in the FREE online Irish Duolingo course. Also, folk of Irish extraction here in Scotland can easily do the same. The Scottish Gaelic course is available as well.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Aye, consumers do tend to vote with their feet. There does seem to be a limited demand for these languages in the marketplace.

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        One also wonders why Irish should be privileged over Polish, say, when it comes to having legal equity with English in Northern Ireland. I detect the stench of ethnic nationalism and ‘indigeneity’ here.

        1. Brian Howard says:

          Do you really believe you’re being original by bringing up the “what about Polish/Chinese” etc bullshit argument about Irish language rights?

          Without fail someone raises this complete and utter crap as some sort of valid argument.

          Irish medium education has grown year on year in NI and is massively oversubscribed. Irish people in Northern Ireland want to see protection and promotion of Irish language and culture.

          A handful of bigots want to prevent that? The majority of the parties in the executive have signed up to legislate for a Irish language. To put minimal protections and legal rights in place.

          Are you saying that rights that people have voted for democratically shouldn’t be allowed because we’ll come across as anti-Polish racists? Is that really the argument Colin?

          1. Colin Robinson says:

            No, the argument is:

            a) for reasons of equality, no language community should be privileged over any other in a pluralistic society;

            b) to grant any language community in a society rights in legislation that other language communities in that society do not enjoy (‘special rights’) is to privilege that community over those others;


            c) no special rights should be legislated for the Irish language community.

            All language communities in NI should enjoy the same legal rights. No language community should be privileged over any other.

          2. Brian Howard says:

            Well Colin Irish language does have a unique position in law in Northern Ireland. It is currently illegal to speak it in a court of law due to an act of Parliament dating to 1737. This only applies to Irish.

            So in the part of Ireland still under UK jurisdiction the oldest and earliest (that we have any extant knowledge of) language in Ireland is currently still being discriminated against. As it has for been for hundreds of years.

            English language, the language of the colonial power that invaded Ireland and at times attempted to eradicate the native language, culture and people is still privileged in society.

            It is the only language that can be used to communicate with the governing authority, civil service or in the legal system.

            So given all that Irish language activists are the ones that are looking to discriminate against speakers of other languages?

            You’re seriously trying to portray people trying to reclaim their own culture and language as some kind of supremacists?

          3. Colin Robinson says:

            No, Brian; I’m saying that, if we aspire to be a plural society, every language community in that society should enjoy equal rights under the law, without exception.

        2. Dàibhidh an Gaidheal says:

          I am aware of a Bulgarian man who lives in Lurgan and yet some people want to put up road signs in English (and expect us to payfor it) and continue to issue government legislation through English. Why is this bigotry allowed in a modern democratic state that flatters itself on its ‘pluralism’? Where are Bogdan’s rights in all of this? Also, why are Colin’s posts in English? Always the same self-pity and me-first attitude from the English speaking ‘community’, despite literally no one outside Colin’s fantasy bubble speaking this hobby ‘language’. An bhfuil seans ann gur amadán ciníoch é Colin? Seans maith.

          1. Colin Robinson says:

            Indeed, where are the rights of the Bulgarian language community in all this? Why should the Irish language community enjoy special rights in law? Is Богдан and his community somehow less worthy of such rights as some other Northern Irish folk? Wherein lies the exceptionalism of the Irish language?

          2. Dàibhidh an Gaidheal says:

            Your arguments are not in good faith. You and your soundalikes on the internet are in reality the last people on earth who would want to give state aid to any kind of minority language. The Irish language is the indigenous language of Ireland, and speakers of that language should be entitled to interact with the state through the medium of that language. Unionist opposition to the Irish language, which is against the Britannic norms of support for Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, is cultural racism pure and simple, however you might feel motivated to spin it. The language does not belong to the nationalist side, or the Catholic community, as you would know if you knew anything about its history, but bigotry like yours only cements this association in the minds of the general public. Which may be your intention.

          3. Brian Howard says:

            Maith an fear. Tá an chiall ceart agat a Dhàibhidh.

  4. SleepingDog says:

    I would make similar points to those about Scottish Gaelic. Make the language available, relevant, appealing, and more popular among younger generations, and you strengthen your case:

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