By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
In November 1987 the DUP’s Sammy Wilson used the racist slur ‘leprechaun language’ to protest against the use of Irish in the chamber of Belfast city council.
At the behest of Wilson, the then lord mayor, backed by unionist colleagues, it was insisted that a Sinn Fein member, Mairtin O Muilleoir, should be evicted from the meeting for speaking in Irish.
Two weeks ago, this time in the Assembly, Wilson again led a cross-party unionist offensive against the Irish language which was intemperate, irrational and at times hysterical, as the Assembly’s Hansard tellingly records.
The 20-year time gap has not mellowed Wilson’s bitter opposition to the sound of the Irish language being spoken within his earshot.
Even those unionists who like to style themselves as ‘liberals’ could not resist attacking the Irish language.
Basil McCrea demanded of the Minister for Education Caitriona Ruane, “a discussion on the value of the Irish-medium sector”, while Danny Kennedy in a contradictory, crestfallen and triumphant manner declared: “My great-grandfather, Jones Black, was a fluent Irish speaker. However, somewhere along the line, the family sorted that out - that tradition no longer exists.”
Money spent on teaching Irish he said is “unjustified and cannot be defended”.
Wilson appears to have learned a little from the days when his unfettered tongue ran loose around the chamber in the city hall.
His attack, backed by others in the DUP like Arlene Foster, Jeffrey Donaldson, Iris Robinson, Nelson McCausland, Mervyn Storey and other less well-known DUP figures, was dressed up in a concern about the future education of children.
But their case was feather light compared to their sustained onslaught on the education minister, the department and specifically the Irish language.
The minister was accused of “social and cultural engineering”, of closing Protestant schools and keeping open Catholic schools.
For Donaldson the minister was following a policy where Protestant schools were “fair game under Bain” - read closure - “whereas those in the maintained (Catholic), Irish medium or integrated sectors are a preserved and protected species”.
Those leading the attack are well aware of the strict procedures and provisions governing school closures, schools remaining open, school amalgamations, funding for Irish language schools and integrated schools.
They are also aware that the minister and the department, as was made clear in the debate, does not ‘initiate’ proposals regarding schools’ policy. They adjudicate on requests from parents, library boards or bodies responsible for administering different educational sectors.
But unionists are not concerned with facts. They are, as Sinn Fein MLA Paul Butler said: “Using the education of our children as a political football.”
Although the comments from unionists were despairingly predictable, nationalists may also reflect on the lack of a response from the SDLP MLA Dominic Bradley, an Irish speaker.
This week the unionists opened up a new front. That other, self-styled liberal and Minister for Health Michael McGimpsey, announced that he is banning department advertisements in Irish.
Not to be out done his colleague David McNarry is proposing a motion to be debated this week to extend this ban to speaking in Irish in the chamber or in written communications between MLAs and departments.
Attacks by unionists on the Irish language or the education department expose their wider attitude and lack of educational policies especially for their working-class supporters.
Their focus on Caitriona Ruane will not affect how well she is received by teachers and children in all schools she visits.
In the words of Sinn Fein MLA Michelle O’Neil during the debate, unionist opposition to the Irish language is irrelevant.
Its growth is guaranteed.