A short guest post by Mark Petticrew, a twenty-two year old politics’ student at the University Of Ulster Jordanstown, examining the current strength of Irish-speakers in the north-east of Ireland, the obstacles facing them, and the inability of ideological unionism to come to terms with the indigenous language of this island nation. Mark blogs about politics and history here.
Political Unionism’s “Curry My Yogurt” Mentality
Despite the global trend of minority language decline, the north of Ireland is experiencing an Irish language revival. A 2015 ESRI study claims 45 per cent of us in the north have a positive attitude towards the Irish language, and that learners here are “driven by intrinsic motivation”.
The Irish-medium education sector has come some way from the humble beginnings of West Belfast’s Bunscoil Phobal Feirste, having opened in 1971 with 9 pupils as the north’s first school of its kind.
Today, there are 86 schools operating through an Irish medium, catering for a 5,000-strong bloc of students. This growing sector is accompanied by dozens of Irish language organisations as well as 184,898 northerners (10.7 per cent) according to the 2011 Census who claim at least some Irish-speaking ability, a 17,408 increase from 2001.
The 11th October marked 10 years since the onset of the 3-day intra-party talks with the British and Irish governments that eventually culminated in the 2006 St. Andrews Agreement. As part of this, the British government made a commitment to introduce an Irish Language Act.
Fast forward a decade, however, and the north remains without this very legislation. The British government was not so committed after all, but then we should know better than to rely on British government commitments. During the 9 years of the 3rd and 4th terms of the Assembly no movement was made on this issue.
The likelihood of any progress with the newly-elected 5th Assembly remains unconvincing, especially with a First Minister in Arlene Foster who thinks that we’re “squandering” money on Irish language schools.
SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone has tabled an Irish language bill, but it’s largely a symbolic move. 43 current MLAs support a public list of Irish language commitments and, on those numbers, the bill wouldn’t make the grade in the 108-member Assembly.
Even in the event of all Green, People Before Profit and Alliance MLAs aligning with nationalist parties, expect the not-so Democratic Unionist Party to pull out their legislative party trick, the ol’ Petition of Concern.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt may have offered a slight olive branch on the Irish language in his party conference speech last year but his party isn’t the one with 38 MLA seats. As long as there exists an intransigent cohort of unionist politicians with a “curry my yogurt” mentality in the Assembly, it is difficult to see how Irish language rights will be enshrined in the short to medium-term.
Ultra-cautious to giving them’uns an inch in full view of the beady-eyed fleggers that elect them, political unionism appears to be no closer in coming to terms with an Irish Language Act.
I just look forward to the day when a unionist politician can embrace the Irish language without fear of turning into a leprechaun – I’ll drink a can of “coca coalyer” to that.