Friday, November 02, 2007
An Eye-Opening Visit to Belfast
At 9:30am, on Thursday October 25th, a group of students met with Jamie Ó Tuama of the Conradh na Gaeilge outside the League’s building on Harcourt Street, Dublin 2. Picket signs and flags at the ready, they were to drive to Belfast to protest outside the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure.
This was in reaction to Minister Edwin Poots’ announcement the previous week where he stated there would be no Irish Language Act in the North, despite two public consultation processes showing an undeniable majority were in favour of its introduction.
As we entered Belfast, I noticed hundreds of small white stickers that read “GAEILGE” adorning almost every road sign. Jamie explained that this apparent vandalism is part of the ‘As Gaeilge Anois’ campaign. Run by a network of young Irish speakers between 18 and 30, it was inspired by similar campaigns in Wales, Scotland and the Basque country. It aims to draw attention to the lack of Irish translations on many road signs.
As we were passing, Jamie pointed out the site of HM Prison Maze where the hunger strikers of '81 were imprisoned. Landmarks like this one, and the radical graffiti on every corner on Falls Road, are just some of the many signs of beautiful Belfast’s turbulent past.
The Department building is situated quite centrally – right alongside the University of Ulster. Around forty protestors stood in its doorway chanting “Acht Gaeilge Anois!” and “Cearta Teanga Cearta Daonra!” Tacked to the walls were posters bearing “Mister Poots, Open Your Mind” and similar slogans.
To the delight of the primary schoolchildren, brought out by their teachers to represent Bunscoil Mhic Reachtain, a man dressed in a chicken suit arrived with a sign reading “Have Some Courage, Edwin!” Some older children had come from Meanscoil Feiriste, and couldn’t help but crack a smile as the chicken clowned around for the benefit of the cameras.
Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin, chairperson of the Irish language organisation, ACHT, agreed to an interview right on the scene and spoke with the conviction of a true Gaelgóir; “Both the Irish and British governments promised this Act would come in, yet Poots has now stated that he is not prepared to spend significant amounts of money on this sort of legislation.”
This promise was made last year as part of the St Andrews Agreement, an international agreement to enact Irish language legislation. It now seems this will not be fulfilled.
“In the first consultation process last year, 93% of those surveyed said they would be in favour of this legislation and of comprehensive rights-based legislation,” says Mac Giolla Bhéin. “Even though this dropped in the second process to 65% that is still a clear majority.
“You’re talking about thousands of people here! When they refuse to acknowledge these results, it’s not just the opinions of the Irish speakers they are disregarding, but everyone’s.”
Mac Giolla Bhéin insists all of Poots’ excuses can be discredited with ease. Many unionists have argued, however, that the Irish language has been politically hijacked by republicans, making it a deeply divisive issue. So is the real issue that people are nervous of bringing in any legislation to do with An Ghaeilge?
“Maybe, yes,” he says thoughtfully. “The opinion we have would be that there is much more than just a strong cultural aspect to it. The people who are against the Act are similar to those who laboured to keep the language under-foot in the past, and it was like that for hundreds of years.
“Many politicians in the North are of the opinion that they have to avoid the issue of the language. They are not happy to give any real place to An Ghaeilge and seem to endeavour to put blocks in its way – blocking Irish-medium education, the Irish-language media, and so on.
“We have to speak out, expressing our rejection of this negative attitude and our dissatisfaction with this bad work. It is sheer trickery on the part of the British government. They called for a consultation processes, then another because they wanted a different result, and also to buy themselves more time.
“This is by no means a case of Poots working on his own, the British government say that the language is a controversial issue and (the legislation) would not be accepted by both sides.”
That makes little sense. I point out that the Act merely gives people the right to have services through Irish provided to them – at their own request. Therefore what harm could it possibly do to non-Irish-speakers?
“Exactly,” beams Ciarán. “That is the way we see it and the way it is seen internationally from the point of view of human rights. If a community requests these services to be provided in a language other than English they should be entitled to that.
“Their biggest excuse, and main reason for breaking their word, is the issue of cost. But don’t they understand that an phobal na gaeilge pays taxes too? I pay taxes and I am basically paying them to ignore my requests, print more documents, and provide more of these services through English – and English alone. Personally, I don’t want my money spent in that way. It’s not at all fair.”
But will this demonstration make any real difference? “It will get peoples’ attention. It speaks clearly to the likes of Poots, saying that we find this treatment unacceptable and were distraught upon hearing the promised Act would not come about.”
“Politicians may fear it somewhat, but the consultation process further proved that many within the English-speaking community have a great respect for An Ghaeilge. Without that support we may well not have made the huge amount of progress that we have in the last few years.”
He pauses and fondly looks around as another round of “Acht Gaeilge Anois!” errupts from the small mob of activists. “Take those who are here protesting today. Some of them don’t have a word of Irish, but they can still understand that it has a great importance. They understand that its preservation is crucial, and are volunteering their time to come out here and defend it.”
The schoolteachers have begun to lead the young children away. Ciarán sighs and remarks, “We’ll keep working hard and trying again whenever we fail. Maybe, in thirty years’ time, if the Irish-speaking people of Northern Ireland are still denied their right to their language, these children might just be back here to protest again.
“The Irish-speaking community is a community that is no different to any other, and just as important. Sometimes we just need to have the courage to show people that. Nothing will ever be accomplished for An Ghaeilge without a lot of hard work and putting people under pressure.”