Acht na Gaeilge is getting lost in translation

If the use of Irish is growing in the North, why does it need to be protected by special legislation?

While Paul Givan and Michelle O'Neill were making their fateful pledges of office at Stormont on Thursday, a class of seven year olds in west Belfast were looking forward enthusiastically to "an samhradh".

Given the sunshine outside, the P3 children at Ballymurphy’s Bunscoil an tSléibhe Dhuibh could be forgiven if they had started to dream of holidays just a fortnight away.

Instead, however, they were busy learning about the differences between “trí” (the number of months of summer) and “trá” (beach), ending with an animated recital.

Headmaster Pilib Mistéil was one of a handful of pupils in the early 1970s who went to learn every day in Belfast's first Irish-medium primary school in Andersonstown.


He remembers being a Gaeilgeoir then made him an oddity. Today, however, Mistéil leads a thriving school of 220 children – some of the 7,000 pupils being taught through Irish across Northern Ireland.

Mistéil, who can go weeks on end without speaking English, says the streets around the Ballymurphy school are "probably the most densely populated Irish-speaking area in Ireland".

He enthuses about the Irish culture available locally, from soothing bilingual yoga classes at the Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich on the Falls Road to expletive-laden Irish hip-hop from Kneecap, including some of his former pupils.

Need for legislation

So if the use of Irish is growing, why does it need to be protected by special legislation? Quickly, Mistéil talks about the right to register births, marriages and deaths in Irish.

He remembers, too, that NI's Education Authority produced nursery school enrolment pamphlets in English and a number of foreign languages, but it never thought to do so in Irish.

Set against a backdrop of historic repression and, more recently, disrespect, “Acht na Gaeilge” would offer reassurance. “It gives you a wall to stand beside, so you don’t feel you are always having to argue on your own,” he says.

A language Act was promised by Tony Blair at St Andrews in 2006, but he could not deliver when devolution was restored a year later. Since then the DUP has insisted it never agreed.

Two existing NI Executive Ministers have been involved in language rows. In 2016, Michelle McIlveen changed the name of a fisheries protection vessel, the Banríon Uladh into its English equivalent Queen of Ulster.

Before Christmas 2016, then communities minister and now First Minister Paul Givan cut bursaries for disadvantaged children going to the Donegal Gaeltacht – the last straw that led to a three-year collapse of Stormont.

In 2014, the DUP's Gregory Campbell infamously parodied Sinn Féin MLAs' use of Irish, beginning an Assembly contribution with the words "curry my yoghurt can coca coalyer". "Pure ignorance," said Sinn Féin's Carál Ní Chuilín.

Then in 2017 Arlene Foster described Sinn Féin as "crocodiles", after being asked to explain why she would not concede an Irish Language Act on her watch. So why the antipathy?

Waste of resources

Some unionists argue that translating Stormont proceedings or publishing more dual-language paperwork is a waste of resources that should be devoted to the National Health Service.

Others argue that Irish has been “weaponised” to force changes to the look of Northern Ireland’s streets and to rob unionists of their British identity by surrounding them with Irish signs.

Pointing to a notorious 1980s republican slogan that "every word of Irish is another bullet being fired in the struggle", Orange Order grand secretary Rev Mervyn Gibon insists the order is not opposed to the language.

However, he insists that demands for increased use of Irish in the courts and other public offices are “a job-creation scheme” for Irish language speakers, “not proportionate to the numbers who speak it”.

“We think people want this for political point-scoring purposes, not because they love the language,” he goes on, saying that republicans want the language “in every part of life” .

The draft law published after the New Decade New Approach deal of January 2020 offers official recognition for Irish and Ulster-Scots, two language commissioners and “best practice” rules for public authorities.

However, those standards would first have to be approved by both Stormont’s First and Deputy First Ministers, each of whom could presumably veto anything too radical.

Misplaced fear

Irish language activist, east Belfast Protestant Linda Ervine says "the fear of an Irish commissioner who is going to run amok and change the whole fabric of Northern Ireland" is misplaced,

“That could only happen if the First and Deputy First Ministers let them,” says Ervine, adding that misinformation that Irish would become compulsory in schools, or be needed to go to the doctor has spread widely.

“These are mad things, and once the Act comes through and people see nothing has changed, it will all be forgotten about,” declares Ervine, adding that matters such as street names are already the responsibility of local councils.

In May, Ervine announced plans to set up east Belfast’s first Irish nursery school. Already, she has 13 children enrolled, while earlier this month she was awarded an MBE for helping hundreds across Belfast to learn Irish.

Ervine, who became fascinated with Irish a decade ago, says the “lovely and very unexpected” honour from the Queen was particularly welcome, because it offset “a small bit of nastiness” she faced about opening her school.

The language Act is necessary, she believes, but she does not approve of Sinn Féin’s ultimatum to the DUP and the UK government, threatening to collapse the executive over the legislation.

“These are the kind of games the DUP and Sinn Féin play with each other. This is not about the language, it is about their lack of respect for each other, their inability to work together or compromise,” she says.

The Act will repeal the 1737 Administration of Justice Language Act that bans the use of Irish in Northern Ireland’s courts, requiring it be used where necessary in the interests of justice.

Former Northern Ireland director of public prosecutions Barra McGrory says the 1737 Act was "obviously more of a problem when there were people who were indigenous Irish speakers who spoke no English".

Such people faced severe discrimination, he says. But even if that is no longer the case, he thinks repeal is necessary as the law “shouldn’t exist on the statute book in the modern era”.

McGrory – a keen Irish speaker – believes people have a right to use their chosen language in courts, but he doesn’t think “the take-up will be so significant that it will cost vast sums”.

McGrory says he was struck by Arlene Foster’s remark that she was so taken aback by the reaction, and, later, by the efforts she made to appreciate “why so many were offended”.

“She understood this was an important identity issue and I think, after that controversy, her attitude began to soften,” he says, adding that it helped to pave the way for the New Decade New Approach deal.

Signing off as First Minister this week, Foster told MLAs: “We can poke each other in the eye and have a competition of ‘My identity is better than yours,’ but it is only by respecting each other’s identity that we will move forward.”

The UK government is to legislate by October if Stormont does not act, but nobody can say what Stormont will do now given the current instability in the wake of Edwin Poots’s forced departure.

Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin of the Irish rights coalition, An Dream Dearg, would take Westminster action over no Act at all, but he would prefer the DUP to buy into the January 2020 agreement.

“If this goes over their head, though Westminster and the DUP are still very much opposed, they will use whatever power they have at Stormont to frustrate progress,” he says.