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The Problem With Irish? Not Enough Politics!

Labhair Gaeilge
Gaeilgeoir - Irish Rights Are Civil Rights!
Gaeilgeoir – Irish Rights Are Civil Rights!

There is a great article over on Diaga on the importance of persecuted communities with distinct languages and cultures achieving some form of political autonomy if their identities are to survive. I recommend that you read the whole thing but here are some highlights:

“Mulling over the Scottish ‘no’ vote last week, it occurred to me just how important political independence has been throughout history in the maintenance and revival of small or minority languages.

The first port of call is Helsinki, capital of Finland. In the 19th century, after centuries of dominion by the Swedes, the Finns gained a semblance of independence, becoming a Grand Duchy, though under Czarist Russian sovereignty. During that period the Finnish language and political movement gained strength and managed to put in place many measures giving Finnish its rightful place in education, culture and politics but it was not until full independence in 1917 that Finnish asserted itself as the dominant language in all spheres of life, reflecting the huge majority of Finnish speakers in Finland.

In Latvia and Estonia the short inter-war independence period served to make their respective languages dominant and prestigious, reflecting the linguistic make-up of their populations. However, with Russian domination came the much dreaded policy of Russification and it was not until those countries regained sovereignty after the collapse of the Soviet Union that they have been able to put in place policies to re-normalise the presence of Latvian and Estonian in all facets of everyday life.

The most obvious example is Hebrew in Israel though efforts towards its revival had begun over half a century before the foundation of the Israeli state in 1948.

The Catalans have also managed to hugely increase the prestige of their language ever since strong autonomy was granted in 1979 and this has led to a steadying of L1 speakers along with a huge increase of L2 speakers which has itself led to an impressive level of normalisation of Catalan in Catalonia.

And finally, of course, Ireland.

Yes, the decline in speaker numbers not stopped, but the framework of independence has allowed Irish to be taught in schools (badly), has allowed the creation of Radio and TV channels, the creation of immersion schools where now over 50,000 children attend and official status at the EU level. Things may be bad and difficult for Irish, but without independence it’s obvious Irish would not have survived into the 21st century. Indeed, all we have to do is look to the 6-counties where in 1922 there were gaeltachtaí in the Sperrins and in Co. an Dún but nowadays you will hear more Gaeilge in West Belfast that in those places.

It cannot be clearer, independence or near enough it is absolutely fundamental for a language under pressure to stabilise and even grow. Scotland may well have voted to indirectly condemn its own native Gàidhlig language to the history books.”

That last point is the most important one. Linguistic rights and political rights go hand-in-hand. Here in Ireland the so-called “problem” with the Irish language is not that it is “too political” but rather that it is not political enough. The lack of influence amongst Irish-speaking communities is one of the major reasons why Sinn Féin, the SDLP and our government  have failed to make any progress on Irish rights in the north-east of Ireland. Sixteen years after the Belfast Agreement was signed we are still waiting on the promised but never delivered Irish Language Act. It remains at the bottom of everyone’s civil rights agenda. Yet we know that if those in the cross-party administration at Stormont had been Catalans, Basques, Finns, Czechs or Israelis they would have achieved full bilingualism decades ago. Or brought the whole rotten edifice tumbling down around everyone’s ears.

Equality will not wait…!

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