Red letter day for the Irish language

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A new sense of empowerment was evident in the largest ever demonstration for Irish language rights in Belfast last weekend, as up to 20,000 people demanded overdue legislation to protect the rights of Irish speakers under British rule.

The marchers from An Dream Dearg (‘The Red Group’) who made their way through the city streets chanted “tír gan teanga, tír gan anam”, which translates as “a country without a language is a country without a soul”.

At Westminster on Wednesday, British legislation on language and culture in the north of Ireland was at last being slowly advanced. The ‘Identity and Language Northern Ireland Bill’ was introduced in the House of Lords with the briefest of statements by Tory peer ‘Earl Howe’, aka Freddie Curzon.

But Irish language activist Conchúr Ó Muadaigh has warned that campaigners “have been here before”.

“Unless resolute action is taken to deliver rights for our community we have no confidence in the British government ability to their public commitment,” he said.

“We don’t trust Boris, we can’t trust Boris – until this legislation is rubber stamped, fully functioning and an Irish language commissioner appointed and delivering upon the core aspects of the act, we will continue to push ahead with our campaign for equality and language rights.”

Sinn Féin’s Pat Sheehan stressed the need for rapid and genuine progress.

“Acht Gaeilge must be delivered now - there must be no more delays, broken promises and time wasting,” he said.

“The British government should live up to its commitments and legislate for an Irish language act to enshrine the rights of Irish speakers into law.”

Unionism has continually resisted pressure to introduce a full Irish Language Act at Stormont. That failure has been compounded at Westminster by successive London governments who have refused to treat the Irish language and culture on a par with Welsh and other minority languages under British rule.

On Saturday, a positive and upbeat march spectacularly highlighted Britain’s refusal to follow through their unfulfilled promises and agreements dating back to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Marchers filled Donegall Place in front of Belfast City Hall after setting off from the west Belfast language hub of Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich. A rally was then held outside city hall as campaigners addressed the crowd in both Irish and English from a temporary stage.

The scale of the youthful and high-energy event contrasted sharply with small and dour anti-protocol unionist events, the largest of which failed to reach even a tenth of the turnout for ‘An Lá Dearg’ (the Red Day).

Despite the good humour, it was clear that the patience of the Irish speaking community had finally evaporated. Supporters cheered as they were told that the days of insults and discrimination against Irish speakers were over.

Mr Ó Muadaigh said Irish speakers “would no longer be treated as second class citizens, marginalised or excluded. Those days are gone for good.

“The Irish Language Act is long, long overdue. Our community cannot and must not be made to wait any longer for the same language rights enjoyed by citizens across these islands.”

He said his campaign was “blown away” by the level of the support shown, and described it as “the biggest Irish language demonstration of a generation”.

But he warned that the legislation will “fall short of the commitments given to us at St Andrew’s, especially when tested against the Welsh model.

“It remains, however, an historic advancement in our campaign for language rights and we welcome it as a significant staging post on our journey for equality here.”

Speaking from London, Michelle O’Neill said Irish speakers “shouldn’t have to wait a day longer.

“It’s important that we now see the Irish Language Act delivered to give official recognition of the Irish language in this state, appoint An Comisinéir Teanga (Irish language commissioner), repeal draconian laws preventing the use of Irish in our courts and ensure that people can access public services through Irish.”

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