Partition: 100 years of language rights denied

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By Lasair Dhearg

For more than six centuries, British policy in Ireland has been aimed at the destruction of the Irish language.

Partition has failed the language in both the Twenty Six and the Six County states. Successive Free State governments have failed to support the revival of the language in any meaningful or practical way and have refused to support the economic development of Gaeltacht areas to the point of no return. British repression of the language has continued post partition with the foundation of the Six County Orange state where it has been continually treated with hostility.

As part of British policy, the Irish language has been oppressed from the 14th century. The complete eradication of indigenous languages is a key strategic objective of the coloniser, as part of their wider political project. The first British law enacted in Ireland which specifically banned the use of the Irish language was Article III of The Statute of Kilkenny from 1366 which made it illegal for English colonists in Ireland to speak it, and for the native to speak their language when interacting with them.

Since the foundation of the northern state Unionism has consistently attacked the Irish language in their attempt to forge their own little England. The Irish language community has witnessed 100 years of oppression and language rights denial as part of the ongoing occupation.

In the early 1920s Ulster Unionists waged an assault on the Irish language by withdrawing funding for the teaching of Irish in schools. This was supported by the removal of the Irish language question for their NI census in 1926 and by 1942 the Stormont administration had completely withdrawn funding for Gaeilge teaching and for Irish language teacher training colleges.

Commenting on the language, James Craig, the first ‘Prime Minister’ of the state said “What use is it to us here in this progressive, busy part of the Empire to teach our children the Irish language? What use would it be to them? Is it not leading them along a road which has no practical value? We have not stopped such teaching.. We have stopped the grants simply because we do not see that these boys being taught Irish would be any better citizens…”

A 1949 NI law prohibiting the erection of street signs in Gaeilge was not repealed until the 1990s.

In the late 1960s, Irish speakers from the Shaws Road Gaeltacht in West Belfast were threatened with arrest if they established an Irish speaking school for their children and the wider community.

In 1984, Breandán Ó Fiaich, an Irish teacher, was arrested and subsequently fined for refusing to speak English when stopped by the RUC at a checkpoint and later defended himself in court through the medium of Irish. The same situation was repeated in 2013 when a member of the Irish language protest group Misneach refused to speak to the PSNI in English and spent a night locked up in the cells as a result.

The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 pledged a commitment to “recognise the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity…including the Irish language” and the 2006 St. Andrews Agreement included plans for an Irish Language Act. Despite this, little institutional progress has been made in relation to the Irish language.

Shortly following the St. Andrews Agreement, a drinks licence was rejected on the basis it was submitted in Irish, citing the 1737 Administration of Justice Act that prohibits the completion of legal documentation in Irish.

The sectarian state continues to deny the Irish language any official status and disproportionately allocates funding to the ‘Ulster Scots’ dialect as an act of appeasement of Unionism.

In recent years Unionists have continued their crusade against the language. The DUPs Sammy Wilson used racist terminology when referring to the Irish language as a ‘leprechaun language’ while in 2014 party colleague Gregory Campbell mocked the language by saying “curry my yogurt, a can coca colyer” a phonetic take on “go raibh maith agat, a cheann comhairle”.

In December 2016, just days before Christmas, DUP Minister Paul Givan withdrew £55,000 of funding for the Líofa bursary scheme that provides opportunities for younger Irish learners to visit the Gaeltacht. This was to save cost despite his party having recent oversight of the corrupt RHI scheme which overspent upwards of £500 million.

In February 2017 when referring to an Irish Language Act, DUP leader Arlene Foster said “if you feed a crocodile it will only come back for more”. That same year, TUV leader Jim Allister said the “Irish language is essentially a hobby language. It is of no practical value to anyone”.

Laughably, this year PUP Cllr John Kyle, when commenting on a passed Belfast City Council bilingual signage proposal, said “the Irish language has become identified with republicanism, and that is a problem in certain areas of our city. For some unionists, it is Irish culture being forced on them.”

Despite centuries of suppression, the Irish language continues to grow and flourish outside the institutions that seek to destroy it. From solitary H-Block cells, to the Gaeltacht wing, the Shaws Road Gaeltacht, Carn Tóchar, seeds were planted that have now led to the establishment of the first Irish Medium secondary schools in the Six Counties, dozens of primary schools and the ever growing number of nursery and childcare provision delivered through the medium of Irish. This is supported by the growing demand for after-school provision and youth clubs along with many Irish classes and cultural spaces emerging. The result, thousands of Irish speakers, learners, families and the establishment of urban Gaeltacht.

The Irish language story is one of suppression but more importantly it is one of resistance, political struggle and of growth, against all odds. It is consistently used as a political bargaining chip and despite the failure of the Six County administration to suppress the language it has continued to grow and develop as a grass roots, community-based movement and language.

The Irish Language has been denied official recognition in the Six Counties solely for sectarian reasons and this is copper fastened by partition and the Unionist veto.

Today, Unionists continue to echo the same themes and debates of the 1920s and 1930s, themselves an echo of centuries old English statutes and English observations of Ireland: Gaeilge is useless; a ridiculous, outdated anachronism; a waste of scarce resources; a foreign language; equivalent to made-up, fictional languages; linked to republicans; a source of political division and strife.

The hostility shown toward the language is not blind sectarianism, but centuries old British policy aimed at the systematic destruction of Irish language and culture, in order to create model, obedient citizens of their artificial Orange state and to completely eradicate any essence of cultural identity.

This policy is facilitated by Unionism and the safeguards and official recognition that the language is entitled to cannot be achieved through the same partitionist institutions that are designed to destroy it.

So in this, the centenary year of that rotten little statelet they call ‘Northern Ireland’, let us remember the real history of its 100 years; a history of language suppression and denial of rights for native speakers.

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