For me an Irish Language Act isn’t just about dry text and translation – By Máirtín Ó Muilleoir

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It’s about celebrating a living, vibrant language as a priceless treasure of all who live here.

It’s about our past — Irish has been spoken here for over 2,000 years — but it’s also about our shared future where difference is valued not scorned.

But, for me, most of all, it’s about Nathan and Breandán.

I first met the boys and their proud-as-a-peacock mum Emma when carrying out post-mayoral duties in Belfast. They were preparing to start secondary school, having completed their primary education in Irish-medium Scoil na Fuiseoige in Twinbrook. Recently, they completed their third year at Coláiste Feirste, where numbers are soaring towards 700. Not bad for a school set up without government support and just nine children on its first year roll back in 1991!

When I bumped up to the Stormont Assembly in late 2015, I put a picture of the boys on my office wall to remind me that when it comes to an Irish Language Act, we are talking about the dignity of real people.

Yet the language the twins love and speak still enjoys no official recognition here.

Worse, they are branded crocodiles for standing up for their rights and told that there will “never be an Irish Language Act”.

Tellingly, the last DUP Education Minister removed every sign and trace of the Irish language from his departmental website, stationery and promotional materials within 24 hours of taking up office.

Surely what’s good enough for Welsh in Wales, Gaelic in Scotland, and for all south of the border is good enough for Nathan and Breandán?

In fact, Manx — a close cousin of Irish — is an official language in the Isle of Mann though it’s spoken by less than 1,500 people.

Like a Bill of Rights, marriage equality and the rights of families to coroners’ inquests, Acht Gaeilge is a matter of basic rights – basic rights that are protected in England, Scotland, Wales and the rest of Ireland.

The denial of these rights would not be tolerated elsewhere on these islands; yet, the Tory Government is facilitating the denial of these rights, because it is in hoc to the DUP.

Critics in the unionist camp contend that an Irish Language Act will cost two fortunes and will involve cat o’ nine tails-style punishments for those who fall foul of the new legislation.

That’s nonsense. The Irish Language Act for which Sinn Féin is campaigning is prudent, practical and pragmatic. Costs have been estimated by officials at around £4m per annum — from a resource budget of over £10bn. As a former Finance Minister, I have no doubt the Irish Language Act will represent excellent value, especially when, as in Wales and Scotland, we start to view Irish as not just a cultural but also an economic and tourism asset.

Siren voices also insist that Sinn Féin will make speaking Irish a condition of employment for ten per cent of all public employees. Bunkum! Fair employment legislation here was hard won. Sinn Féin sees no need to set aside that legislation under any new Irish Language Act.

Indeed, most government departments will find they can transfer Irish speakers to take up the new responsibilities, which will flow from a more modern and progressive approach to the use of Irish.

Interestingly, those in the DUP whose voices are raised loudest to protest the investment in an Irish Language Act were mute about the £80,000-a-day squandered in the RHI debacle.

Their experience, sadly, has been in blocking the Irish language — even stooping to snatching Irish college grants from schoolchildren in the mouth of Christmas. That’s why those who love Irish won’t be taking any lessons in language promotion from the DUP.

Instead, they’ll be echoing the views of the Committee of Experts at the Council of Europe, of the United Nations, of the Irish Government, and of pobal na Gaeilge – all of whom say a stand-alone Irish Language Act is the only way to ensure effective promotion and respect for the Irish Language.

The Irish language belongs to all. It is above politics. The argument for an Irish Language, like the argument for LGBT rights, has been won. It’s time the DUP caught up with the rest of us.


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  1. When are you going to develop the politics of persuasion? Why are you conversing with the Secretary of State using the English language? Walk the walk for a while, speak in your chosen tongue, tease your opponents to beat you at your own game. Set the example? This article seems to be in, er, English. No call for me to seek a translation then, no challenge, no learning.

  2. Ruaidri Ua Conchobair on

    What makes you imagine, this island of Ireland’s native Irish language speakers must persuade ‘others’ they share this place with to accord them the same rights and protections as citizens in Scotland and Wales?

    If Máirtín wrote it in Gaeilge could you read it – an bhfuil Gaeilge agat?

    Ireland’s native language was politicised by the British from Britain who demonised and banned it. Still, it’s time to leave behind those ugly past games of supremacism, domination and hatred of the ‘other’. Our children deserve a future built on respecting each other as equals in this place we call home.

    • Hi Ruaidri, I believe that politics, real politics, is about the art of persuasion. I also think if Mairtin wants to be taken seriously on the subject he needs to communicate in his native tongue all the time, not just to state his beliefs in English. Or would his electorate not understand him? At least I would make the effort to read my Buntus Cainte as there may be some purpose to it. Slan agat.

      • Hi Peter,
        I feel you are creating a poor strawman here in saying ‘if Mairtin wants to be taken seriously on the subject he needs to communicate in his native tongue all the time’ especially as he and others note that the language should not be something forced on others but shared instead.

        I do not have a womb, yet I can argue for women’s health rights. I cannot sing, yet I can debate the merits of music that I listen to. My Irish isn’t great any longer (lack of practice), yet I can argue or debate in a language of my choice for the rights of others to have Irish recognised and rights enshrined in the North where for too long those rights were treated poorly.

        Also, how would he persuade those who do not understand Irish by merely speaking in Irish all the time. It would appear that a large number of native English speakers require persuading, would it not be a better use of time speaking in their tongue to try and sway them?


  3. How can an ILA have been costed when it hasn’t been decided what will be included? Road signs/street names? Public buildings? Parks? Will there have to be a fluent Irish Speaker in every government office? Will binmen/dog wardens/park rangers be expected to engage with the public in Irish?

    Who decides on these?

    Are IL signs to be erected in Tigers Bay/ Sandy Row/Mount Vernon? What if those communities don’t want them and how will those opinions be sought? Who will erect those signs were the communities are hostile to them and how long will they last?

    If it’s an equality issue then why does an ILA have to be stand alone? Why can’t the Act cover other languages/cultures? Are they less equal?

    When I see any commentry from the author of this piece I’ immediately think of a quote from him re the use of the Irish Language. It was something along the lines that every word spoken in Irish was equal to a bullet fired in the struggle (which I interpret to mean the sectarian terrorist campaign).

    SF politicised the IL in the 80’s and weaponise it today.

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