One of the bones in contention between Sinn Fein and the DUP over the suspended Stormont is the Unionists’ refusal to pass a law recognising the Irish language. The Unionists have used their veto within the post-Good Friday Agreement set-up to ensure that British law does not extend to Stormont. Provision was made by Westminster for the Welsh language in 1967 and 1993, and by Holyrood for Scottish Gaelic in 2005. Nevertheless, there has been a constant undercurrent of anti-Welsh and anti-Gaelic attacks from Unionists in these two countries too. Given that reactionary unionism currently dominates UK politics, it is well to take notice of what is happening in Northern Ireland, particularly with the Tory government dependent on the DUP.
However, the article below, written by Fergus O’Hare takes a much broader view of why Irish (and by implication) other minority languages are important for the whole of humankind. Fergus was very active as a Peoples Democracy member in the Northern Irish Civil Rights Movement, and later in the Northern Resistance Movement. In 1981 he was elected to Belfast City Council. Later he became the headteacher of Northern Ireland’s first Irish language secondary school, Colaiste Feirste, and was involved in Radio Failte, the first legal Irish language station in Northern Ireland.
“It is well to remember that nations which submit to conquest or races which abandon their language in favour of that of an oppressor do so, not because of altruistic motives, or because of the love of the brotherhood of man, but from a slavish and cringing spirit. From a spirit which cannot exist side by side with the revolutionary idea.”
AN IRISH LANGUAGE ACT IS FOR EVERYONE
The current opposition to an Irish Language Act has been fueled to a large extent by ignorance and bigotry. An Irish Language Act is not just needed for Irish speakers and learners or lovers of the Irish language. It is needed for everyone. It is needed for society.
In modern liberal and democratic societies many activities are supported, promoted and paid for from public funds, not because they are used by everyone in society or even by a majority in society but because they are not. Many artistic, sporting and other activities have minority followings but in a mature and inclusive society they are supported by taxpayers money or through other official support mechanisms because such a society recognises that all our lives can be enriched and made more interesting when a variety of interests and activities, even those of minority interest, are catered for and supported.
I seldom get an opportunity to listen to the Ulster Orchestra, but I am happy that it exists and that it is supported and funded by some of the taxes that I pay, because I know that others in society get much pleasure from it and because I believe that listening to and playing music can bring many positive things to people’s lives. I very seldom get a chance to visit the Ulster Museum but again I am happy that some of my taxes go towards its upkeep. I have very little interest in sport but I am content that many other people watch, enjoy and participate in a wide variety of sports, some of which have a minority following and are supported from the public purse. A mature society recognises the value of diversity and the importance of supporting and protecting diversity.
The great variety of languages and cultures in the world enrich all of our lives. The world would be a poorer and much less enjoyable place if this great variety of cultures and associated languages were lost. It is estimated that there are around 6,000 distinguishable languages in the world today. Some of these languages, for historical reasons, are strong and widely used, often being spoken in many different countries by millions of people. Some of them, often for the same historical reasons, are not widely known internationally and are spoken by relatively small numbers of people. Yet all of these languages are important, not only as a means of communication for people but also as a repository of the culture and experience of the peoples of our world.
Unfortunately at present this great cultural diversity is under serious threat. Around the world minority languages and associated cultures are being lost due to the increasing domination of major imperial languages and cultures. It is estimated that ninety percent of all languages currently spoken in the world will be lost by the end of this century if this situation continues. Such a loss would impoverish the lives of all human beings on the planet. It is in order to stem this tragic loss of languages and cultures on a worldwide basis that enlightened governments and international organisations have in recent times been bringing in legislation and international agreements to protect and promote minority languages and cultures.
Is it acceptable that in this generation, because of a lack of understanding, a lack of will or because of hatred and bigotry, that we should be responsible for the passing on of a culturally, impoverished and depleted world to future generations? If this outcome is to be avoided then it is important that we all act positively to preserve, protect and promote our cultural and linguistic heritage. There is a particular onus on all of us to preserve, protect and promote those aspects of language and culture which are unique to our own particular circumstance. In the Northern Ireland state that requires, along with other actions, legislation to protect and promote the Irish language.
Fergus O’ Hare Belfast 2017