Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin: Time for an Irish Language Act

Belfast City Hall lit up in red lights in support of those campaigning for an Irish Language Act in Northern Ireland
Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin

TWO years ago to the day on Saturday the Irish language community took the streets for the first time under the banner of An Dream Dearg.

It was in response to the decision of the then-minister Paul Givan to remove the £50,000 Líofa scholarship grant.

Whilst the minister wisely returned the grant, via a tweet, on the day of the protest, his regressive and hostile attack on a minority community inspired an autonomous movement for change which has successfully elevated the discussion around the status of Irish here from the margins to the very centre of the political discourse.

To mark that anniversary, Belfast's City Hall turned red as a beacon of equality in a changing city.

It summed up the progress that has been made in a relatively short period of time: more children are educated through Irish than ever before; five parties and 50 MLAs support our campaign, the Irish government publicly calling for language rights and most importantly huge swathes of ordinary people from all backgrounds continue to come out again and again to our protests and marches.

Yet two years on and the denial of language rights and the intransigent opposition of the DUP to equality for Irish speakers, remains the single biggest issue preventing the restoration of power-sharing.

An Irish Language Act was promised as part of the internationally binding St Andrew's Agreement over 12 years ago. This agreement was endorsed by its co-guarantors, the British and Irish governments.

Despite this and three public consultations, no such Act has been implemented.

The Irish Language Act is about affording those who wish to use the language the choice and the provision to do so. For those who do not wish to engage with the language, there will be no compulsion to learn or to speak Irish.

In the skewed view, acceding to minority rights is an implicit threat that somehow erodes the rights of the majority. Nowhere has this view stood up to logical scrutiny.

Language rights are human rights, to be enjoyed by all and denied to none.

Throughout the world, it is widely recognised that visibility of minority languages in public signage is essential in both normalising and promoting previously excluded languages.

While City Hall was red on Saturday, our native language has no official visibility in our streets, roads and public signage. This fact serves to alienate, marginalise and exclude an emerging community and their language of choice in their own country.

Fluency in English and being bilingual cannot and should not be used to justify the imposition of English on the tens of thousands of people who choose to use Irish as their daily language of choice.

When 15,000 marched to central Belfast in May 2017 demanding a standalone, rights-based Irish language act, the message was simple; the days of exclusion and invisibility are over.

What we ask is not for a political concession or some special privilege but to be treated with respect and equality in our own country.

Two years on from our first protest and over 20 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, surely we can deliver a more pluralistic, tolerant and inclusive society that makes everyone feel welcomed and valued, regardless of language, identity, creed, sex or colour.

Acht Anois.

:: Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin is advocacy manager for Conradh na Gaeilge

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