The Northern Ireland election and the Irish language

by Deirdre Dunlevy

Irish was a principal background factor in the breakdown of the Northern Ireland executive in January, resulting in a snap election on Thursday, 2 March. The position of the Irish language in Northern Ireland became a key issue in the election campaign among politicians and constituents alike. Parties clashed over the need to introduce an Irish Language Act, with some major parties vehemently opposed to any concessions towards the language.

Unsubstantiated claims, based on misinformed figures of expenditure on language provision in the Republic of Ireland and Scotland, suggested that implementing a language act could cost the community billions. These claims were often cited by political parties as a reason for not supporting an Act. Here, financial considerations were used as a detractor from the main reason that politicians were reluctant to make a stand regarding the language; because language is so closely linked to a sense of identity in Northern Ireland, taking a clear line regarding a local, minoritised language can still be seen to be a divisive issue. As such, traditionally it has been difficult for those who value their British identity to embrace Irish openly. Support for an Irish Language Act among some members of the community is evident, and the failure of the Executive to develop a language strategy has aggravated the situation. Sinn Féin, the main republican party in Northern Ireland, have been strong advocates in support of the Irish language in the North and the Republic of Ireland. They have traditionally made use of the Irish language, and continued to do so in this campaign, including the use of the language in campaign posters. Opposition parties accused them of politicising the language; however, by passively allowing Sinn Féin to claim ownership of the language the other parties were also complicit in the politicisation of it. By adhering to antiquated and traditional views of the languages in the North ‘belonging’ to one group or the other, sectarian divisions among the communities are exacerbated and progress impeded.

A language is a tool for communication, not for politicisation. It belongs to everyone in Northern Ireland, not just to one community. When the political representatives of the protestant, unionist and loyalist communities refuse to engage with the language, it suggests to their community and voters that the Irish language does not belong to them and does not form part of their identity. However, the Irish language has a long history in Northern Ireland, and has long been spoken and embraced by the protestant community. Equally, when the political representatives of the nationalist and republican communities make use of the language to push a certain agenda or to incite the opposition, it diminishes the importance of the language and discourages others from exploring their relationship with it.

Irish, and indeed the other languages of Northern Ireland, can be used as a means of encouraging reconciliation among the communities in Northern Ireland. There are many community organisations within the protestant, unionist and loyalist communities that are already involved in reclaiming the language as part of their identity and exploring this shared culture. In Strand 3 of the MEITS project, we are working together with such cross-community organisations to promote multilingualism, through understanding the role of the Irish language in the daily lives of the community and how relations between traditionally divided communities can be improved, using the language as a bridge towards social cohesion.

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