There is busy and there is BUSY. And the last few weeks have been BUSY. I returned to Ireland on Friday after four days in Cuba attending the funeral of Fidel Castro. The following morning, with my jet lag in full mode, I was in Richmond Barracks in Dublin for our annual Slógadh - Sinn Féin’s Irish language conference. Later that afternoon I was over in the Red Cow Hotel attending the Sinn Féin Women’s Conference.
Amongst the guests attending the Slógadh were a number of Irish language advocacy and community organisations - from Conradh na Gaeilge, to Gaeloideachas, from Iontabhas na Gaelscolaíochta and to Norman Uprichard from the East Belfast Mission; who spoke in the morning session on the issue of identity.
The theme of this year’s Slógadh was “Fíorú na Físe - Realising the Vision”. I told the Slógadh that realising a vision for the language requires increased co-operation amongst Irish language organisations, and for a reinvigorated community driven campaign for an Acht na Gaeilge in the North.
In the south it requires a proper and effective rights based Bille na dTeangacha Oifigiúla and adequate investment in the language and in our Gaeltacht regions.
There are serious concerns in both parts of the island about the attitude of officialdom to the language. In the North Sinn Féin has been criticised because of the absence of an Irish language strategy in the draft Programme for Government. This absence is because of the DUP. Carál Ní Chuilín brought an Irish language strategy to the Executive in the last term, but it was rejected by the DUP and UUP and the DUP continues to block its inclusion.
This should come as no surprise. For 50 years political unionism ran an ultra-conservative regime in the North which actively engaged in structured political, economic and religious discrimination. For over two decades under British Direct Rule the unionist leadership used its influence with successive British Secretaries of State to oppose any progressive reform.
The Good Friday and subsequent agreements forced the Ulster Unionist Party leadership and subsequently the DUP leadership to agree with, or acquiesce to, a significant programme of constitutional and institutional change that many within political unionism were and still are deeply unhappy with. Unionist leaders rarely embrace these necessary and modest changes.
Among these is the Irish language. From Sinn Féin’s perspective the language is the property of all irrespective of political affiliation. But for some unionists the language is an excuse for messing, for expressions of offensive bigotry and downright
For much of the time since the Executive and Assembly were established Sinn Féin held the Department of Education and the Department of Culture, Arts and Learning. Now a DUP Minister has responsibility for Education and the Liofa project is the responsibility of another DUP Minister.
As a result of decisions that have been taken, especially by the Minister for Education, there are very real and justifiable concerns amongst the Irish language community. This is a challenge we cannot shy away from and which needs the combined effort and co-operation of Irish language groups as well as all of those who believe in equality and fairness and parity of esteem.
It means demanding that the DUP steps up to the plate. It means that party acknowledging that the Irish identity, culture and Irish language are as equal and valid as any other and must be treated as such. And that respect must begin in government. It also means respecting and assisting Gaelscoileanna to develop and to reach their full potential as a sector that positively contributes to society and to the lives of thousands of citizens.
None of this will be easy. There is a deep rooted antipathy within elements of political unionism to anything it believes puts at risk their clinging to the dominance of the ‘British way of life’ in the North. It is a legacy of our colonial experience. But it can be overcome. If can be changed. The reality is that the North is not the one party, unionist dominated, sectarian based, repressive little statelet it once was. A lot has changed. The Brexit vote to Remain is just one example of that.
Nor should we forget that despite the opposition of the leaders of Unionism, the Irish language is not the marginalised, ostracised minority issue it once was. There are around five and a half thousand young people attending nurseries, as well as primary and secondary schools across the North, and many thousand more speak the language every day of our lives.
Through the negotiations process Sinn Féin successfully secured the establishment of an all-Ireland body to support and promote it (Foras na Gaeilge); the signing of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages by the British government; the extension of Irish language broadcasting into the North; continued funding for an Irish Language Broadcasting Fund; as well as new funding for an Irish Language Capital Investment Fund – Ciste Infheistíochta Ghaeilge.
The Líofa initiative, which had a modest aim of encouraging one thousand new Irish language speakers, now has almost 18,500 people registered.
In relation to the recent Programme for Government, we were successful in including a commitment to an tAcadamh, taking forward the Gaeltacht Quarter Action Plan and securing an acknowledgement of the importance of Gaeilge to our cultural heritage.
In the time ahead we must increase pressure on the Irish and British governments to fulfil the commitment made in the St. Andrew’s Agreement to an Acht na Gaeilge. The Irish government especially has been less than enthusiastic in supporting the Irish language. In its recent budget it cut funding to the Irish language, the Gaeltacht and the Islands by 9%. Nonetheless it has a responsibility under the terms of the Good Friday and subsequent agreements to defend the rights of all citizens to equality. That includes Irish speakers.
Finally, there are currently Judicial Review proceedings underway in to why the Executive did not agree the Irish Language Strategy in the previous term. This action is being taken by Conradh na Gaeilge. There is a second Judicial Review being taken by an individual citizen against the British Government in relation to Acht na Gaeilge and their responsibilities under St. Andrew’s Agreement.
Last week also saw a very well attended meeting in the Cultúrlann in west Belfast to discuss a campaign and a protest march - along the same lines of the 'Dearg le Fearg' protests that took place two years ago. The objective is to raise awareness about this issue.