Irish campaigners warn against ‘paper exercise’ over language act

DUP MLA Edwin Poots addressed a gathering in Glenties, Co Donegal in Irish
DUP MLA Edwin Poots addressed a gathering in Glenties, Co Donegal in Irish

Any plans to introduce legislative protection for the Irish language will be “merely a paper exercise” unless measures such as bilingual road signs, a public sector quota for Irish speakers and an Irish language commissioner are addressed.

That was the claim made yesterday by Irish language group Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League), after DUP MLA Edwin Poots addressed a gathering in Co Donegal in Irish.

The Lagan Valley MLA was speaking during a discussion on north-south relationships at MacGill Summer School in Glenties, where he accused Sinn Fein of being “reckless” in its ongoing demand for an Irish language act.

Mr Poots’s decision to address the gathering in Irish has been welcomed by Conradh na Gaeilge, who viewed it as a symbolic gesture which could help “break down barriers” and pave the way for legislation to protect the Irish language.

But the group has also urged the DUP to reconsider its position, after Mr Poots spelt out his opposition to bilingual road signs, a quota for Irish language speakers in the civil service and an Irish language commissioner with powers to sanction public authorities.

The introduction of an Irish language act is a major stumbling block in efforts to restore power-sharing at Stormont, and remains a key demand of Sinn Fein.

Mr Poots branded the republican party “reckless” for putting a proposed Irish language act above setting a budget, health reform and Brexit planning.

He said his party was “not opposed in principle” to legislative support for the Irish language, adding that minority languages legislation was not “in any way anti-unionist”.

But Mr Poots expressed his belief that Sinn Fein wants to use the language to impose an Irish national identity in Northern Ireland.

“What my party opposes is the introduction of Irish language legislation that is more about developing a sense of national identity than it is about supporting the language itself,” he added.

“What we don’t want is for Irish to be invasive in the lives of those who do not choose to speak the language.”

Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin, advocacy manager for Conradh na Gaeilge, felt any legislation to protect the Irish language cannot ignore elements such as bilingual road signs, a public sector quota for Irish speakers and an Irish language commissioner.

He told the News Letter: “These are three of the main elements that we would want to see included in any act.

“Mr Poots has said he wants to see the stigma taken out of Irish language, and that is exactly what these measures would achieve.

“Having bilingual signs only in nationalist areas only serves to deepen divisions. We have found that many people from a Protestant background who became interested in learning the Irish language did so because of an interest in place names.”

Mr Mac Giolla Bhéin also felt that having an Irish language commissioner would serve to further depoliticise the language by “appointing someone objective and free from any political baggage”.

At the end of his speech in Co Donegal on Wednesday, Mr Poots said: “Maireann an chraobh ar an bhfál ach ní mhaireann an lámh do chuir.”

He elaborated: “Forgive my broken Irish, but for those of you who, like me, are not fluent it translates to: ‘The branch lives on the hedge though the hand that planted it be dead.’

“It’s an old Irish saying reminding us of our mortality and that our actions today will live long after we are gone.

“May we work together both north-south and east-west to ensure the best for all these British Isles.”

Back in April, DUP leader Arlene Foster said thank you in Irish during a visit to a school.

The former first minister was at Our Lady’s Grammar School in Newry when she used the Irish phrase “go raibh maith agat”.

She said she had been “uplifted” by the experience.