War of words over Irish Language Act

Trevor Wilson.
Trevor Wilson.

A war of words has broken out among Mid Ulster Councillors over the Irish Language Act.

While unionists say attempts to revive the language in the Republic have been an expensive failure, nationalists have argued there is nothing to fear from the language.

Councillor Martin Kearney.

Councillor Martin Kearney.

Councillor Niamh Milne submitted a notice of motion to the council last week that: “This Council calls for the introduction of Acht na Gaeilge as promised in the St Andrew’s Agreement. We recognize the need to have the indigenous language of this Island protected in legislation. We also recognise that Acht na Gaeilge is important in the context of protecting rights, showing recognition and demonstrating respect.

“In this Council area, there is a fast growing Irish Language community; including children who are being educated through the medium of Irish. Their rights must be protected.”

Speaking for the Ulster Unionist Party Cllr Trevor Wilson pointed out they had no role in making the St Andrew’s Agreement and his party made to promises to anyone about an Irish language Act.

He added: “As we have stated repeatedly, the Ulster Unionist Party has no quarrel with the Irish Language nor should any unionist, however, we do not believe there is any need for an Irish Language Act.

“Under the Belfast Agreement, unionists and nationalists agreed to recognise and respect both the Irish language and Ulster Scots and provided recognition and protections such as the establishment of Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster Scots Agency.

“The aim at that time was to take language out of the hands of politicians and avoid the type of conflict we have seen recently.”

Asking what proponents of the Irish Language Act hoped to achieve he said: “For almost a century, the Republic has spent millions of taxpayers’ money and utilised millions of teaching hours making children learn Irish, only to find that after all that effort, English is still the mother tongue of the Republic. The fact is that today even in the Gaeltacht areas, the use of Irish is in decline. Attempts to conduct business in Dublin using Irish would be met with incomprehension.

“The Revival has been an expensive failure in the Republic and we have no wish to replicate it in Northern Ireland. Ireland – north and south – is, as Enda Kenny said in March 2015, ‘an English speaking island’

“The impression given by some supporters of the Irish Language lobby is of a language that has been forced underground, denied rights, oppressed and starved of funding.

“Figures contained within the Flags, Identity, Culture & Tradition (FICT) commission demonstrate that the facts simply do not bear that out. This is the reality of the status of the Irish language. Nobody is denied the right to learn Irish or to use it, nor should they be.

By any standard of measurement, Irish is very generously provided for.“

He concluded: “The Irish language is regrettably being used a tool to further divide people in this country. This is the very opposite of a shared future. Surely we have had enough of ‘us’ and ‘them’?“

Martin Kearney said on behalf of the SDLP: “I re-iterate our belief that the Irish Language must be protected and that it must have legislation that will allow it to continue to grow and flourish.

“There is a need for the establishment of a Rights based Irish Language Act or Acht na Gaeilge which recognises the language’s cultural and social importance to these islands. The SDLP wants to see a Standalone Irish Language Act.

“Some ten years ago the SDLP was the first Party to table an Irish Language Act in the Assembly through Dominic Bradley. Indeed before the collapse of Stormont Mid-Ulster MLA Patsy McGlone was preparing a Private Members’ Bill on the Irish Language to protect, promote and enhance the rights of Irish speakers.

“Several months ago a deal was nearly struck that recognised the language but lacked crucial mechanisms to ensure its security. I believe the Office of an Independent Commissioner can be that security.

“The Irish language should not be a political issue, it should not be a weapon or leverage against other communities, but should be for everyone as a rich and enriching means of expression, contributing to better understanding of the expression of the Irish identity, be that through literature, song, poetry, even in placenames.

“I believe that unionism can recognise that there is nothing to fear from the Language and that they too have a role to play in its future.

“However, if the Assembly is to develop and an Executive set up which is to have at its core parity of esteem and a genuine will to create a reconciled society, then we need to accommodate each other.

“Across Mid-Ulster we all strive to celebrate the aspects of our identities which make us all unique, my Party believes that the Irish language should also be accommodated.

“I was given the opportunity to learn Irish, to teach it as a second language in a primary school and want to see legislation that will allow it to grow and flourish.

“Put simply in English ‘a country without a language is a country without a soul’ or in Irish ‘Tír gan teanga, Tír gan anam’.”

Cllr Milne was unavailable for comment on the motion but a Sinn Fein spokesman said the motion spoke for itself and they were glad it had been passed.