Feb 14th 2010
Sinn Féin is serious about the Irish language. Even our political opponents acknowledge this. That means on a day to day basis that in councils across Ireland, in Teach Laighean, in the Assembly and in the European Parliament we are doing our best by the language.
Sinn Féin has fought, marched, argued and cajoled for the rights of Irish speakers. We have spent hours and hours with both governments and the unionists explaining why we believe that those who wish to live their lives through the medium of Irish should be free to do so unencumbered by legislation dating back to the Penal Laws or prejudices imposed by outdated notions of colonial superiority.
We have pointed out that this is a serious life-choice and it cries out for the same recognition and protection under law as any other section of Irish society.
What will make the defining difference in our society will be an increase in the numbers of people who choose to live their lives through the medium of Irish. Those who speak Irish (especially to their children) in their homes, at work and socially, who send their children to Gaelscoileanna and hopefully in the future, third level institutions, will change this society and make it truly bilingual.
In the meantime Sinn Féin will continue to fight for rights for Irish speakers today and everyday because it is the right thing to do. What do Irish language rights mean?
It means that Irish speakers are entitled to exactly the same rights as English speakers. It means Acht na Gaeilge. But Acht na Gaeilge is not the be all and end all of Irish language campaigning. It is a reasonable, necessary and modest legal entitlement. In this Blogs opinion it will be secured.
But all the progress to date and the wonderful renaissance and flowering of Irish has been achieved without an Acht na Gaeilge. That work is to the credit of activists, teachers, parents, and Gaeilgeoirí right across the spectrum.
That work must continue. We – by we I mean the Irish language community - will have victories but we will also have setbacks; that is the nature of struggle.
I and others in the Sinn Féin leadership have done important work with Éamon Ó Cuív, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, and Micheal Martin the Minister for Foreign Affairs and we will continue to explore ways to get Irish government support for Irish language development across the island but particularly in the north.
Both of these Ministers are committed Gaeilgeoirí. So is the Taoiseach.
That is why the government’s initial reticence about advancing the Irish language agenda at the Hillsborough talks was so exasperating.
Sinn Féin put Acht na Gaeilge and an Irish language strategy and the 1737 Administration of Justice Act, which bans the use of Irish in the courts, on the agenda. The British government resisted this. Presumably for fear of alienating the unionists or in a tactical decision to focus only on the transfer of policing and justice powers and parading issues.
Sinn Féin insisted that there be discussions on all of the outstanding aspects of the Good Friday and St. Andrew’s agreements, including Acht na Gaeilge.
Sinn Fein mapped out for the two governments their obligations on Acht na Gaeilge and exactly what they could do about it.
The St. Andrews agreement is an international agreement between the two governments.
Both governments are guarantors. Under existing legislation the British government can compel the DCAL Minister to act as required to fulfil the British government’s commitment on Acht na Gaeilge. Failure to do so would place the British clearly in default. Incredibility when Sinn Féin highlighted this some Irish government officials responded by suggesting that St. Andrews is not really an international agreement in the real sense.
If you check the statements of the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister when they came to Hillsborough there is no mention of Irish language rights whatsoever.
Similarly in their statement released by them when they left the talks two nights and three days later there is no mention of the Irish language.
The Taoiseach did raise this issue eventually but that was only after Martin McGuinness and I had a blazing row with him and Gordon Brown.
The DUP obviously didn’t want to deal with these matters at all but they certainly know that important issues like this are not going to go away. They know that it is only a matter of time before an Acht na Gaeilge becomes a reality.
Of course, this is not a matter of coercing or forcing unionism to embrace Irish language rights. Gaeilgeoirí do have a big job to win support for these matters and to persuade others that this issue needs to be depoliticised and that the gift of an indigenous language is a national treasure and the heritage of all who live on this island, no matter about political or other allegiances.
At the same time Irish language rights cannot be withheld or reduced at the whim of any political party. Equality is equality is equality.
This Blog is fully committed to working with the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland. I am pleased to reveal that he has committed to bringing forward a draft strategy to the Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.
This commitment came on Wednesday February 10th in a reply to a written question from me in which I asked the DCAL Minister when he will bring forward a strategy on the Irish language.
In his answer he said:
“Since coming into office at the beginning of July 2009, I have given special attention to the development of a minority languages strategy.
It is my intention to bring forward a draft strategy to the Executive by the end of March which can go out to consultation.
One strand of this strategy will be to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language as set out in Section 28D of the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews) Act 2006.
The preparation of this draft Minority Languages Strategy will require engagement with, and commitments from, a number of other Northern Ireland departments – especially in relation to education – and from the United Kingdom government in relation to broadcasting.”
It can be taken as fact that the draft language strategy will not be what is required. But until it is Gaeilgeoirí have a duty to work positively and in good faith to bring about the necessary changes.
So too with those issues that are the responsibility of the British government. Martin McGuinness and other republican Ministers on the Executive have engaged at the British-Irish conference on this issue and with the Scottish Executive. I have engaged with Paul Murphy, the Welsh Secretary of State and Martin and I have talked at length with Gordon Brown on Irish language issues. We will continue all these discussions with the two governments and the Welsh and Scottish Assemblies. Bairbre de Brún MEP will also continue with her work in the European Parliament.
Our position in relation to the British government is straight forward.
The 1737 Act must go.
The British government, as part of the agreement at St. Andrews, undertook to introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and to work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language. Sinn Féin has continued to hold the British government to that commitment.
It was our negotiating team which won this in the first instance and we have no intention of giving up on it.
At Hillsborough we agreed with the DUP to set up a working group to deal with outstanding elements of the St. Andrews agreement. The First and Deputy First Minister will provide a report to the Executive by the end of February detailing the level of progress made on each outstanding matter. This includes the Irish language.
They will also seek Executive approval to set up a Working Group to recommend on how progress could be made on those matters which have not been acted upon. Within four weeks of the Working Group’s initial report the First and Deputy First Minister will agree a programme to effect completion of the agreed conclusions of the Working Group.
Martin McGuinness has also raised Irish language issues directly with Peter Robinson.
In the meantime Sinn Féin Ministers will continue to support and introduce gaeilge-friendly policies in their departments, including bi-lingual services and signage, and the DUP is in no doubt about the need also for the Executive to deliver for everyone, including Gaeilgeoirí.
The Minister of Education Caitriona Ruane is doing pioneering work in respect of Irish medium education. An Ghaelscolaíocht has been put on a more secure footing across the north as it continues to expand and develop. At a time of falling enrolments and school closures across the education sector parents in increasing numbers are choosing Irish language schooling for their children. There are now 23 freestanding schools, 12 units and plans to develop more schools and nurseries over the next 18 months. Millions of pounds of funding and capital investment has been secured for the sector.
Our activists will continue with the work of winning support for the gaelicisation of communities, including An Cheathrú Gaeltachta in Belfast.
The work of our Irish language Cumainn will get support from the party leadership, as will initiatives like – Glór na Poblachta - our own Irish language magazine available from Sinn Féin shops and An Ceathrú Póilí. Or contact Niall Ó Donnghaile in our press office.
So, the Irish language cause is being actively pursued on a number of fronts by Sinn Féin.
This Blog has also been busy lobbying the British Prime Minister on the need to continue resources for building the Irish language infrastructure and the arts.
I am pleased to be able to reveal that Gordon Brown has committed the British government to carry on funding the Irish Language Broadcasting Fund for a further four years after 2011, and will provide resource to continue the development of Irish language infrastructure. The resource, including the extended funding for the Broadcast Fund will amount to £20 million.
Given that this is not coming out of the Executive budget this is a welcome development.
So, the work goes on.
But it’s bigger than Sinn Féin. We cannot change society on our own. But we can and do work with others. Our party wants to be used as a resource by those who want to create a bi-lingual society. This has to include services that ensure cradle to the grave opportunities to live through the medium of Irish, if that is your choice.
There is plenty of room for everyone in this endeavour.
It should truly be a national effort. Bígí linn.