More curry in his yoghurt.

“Curry in my yoghurt” was a statement that caused significant controversy in the realm of Northern Irish politics, last year. The statement, made by DUP’s Gregory Campbell during a debate regarding the Irish language, was a mocking rendition of the Irish phrase “go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle”, which translates as “thank you, Speaker”, and is used by nationalist Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLAs) in the chamber.

Under the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), both the British and Irish governments demonstrated a commitment to preserve, develop and promote the Irish language, with legislation for the language a condition stipulated in the St. Andrew’s Agreement. The St. Andrew’s Agreement of 2006 states that: “The [British] Government will introduce an Irish Language Act… to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.’ However, support for an Irish Language Act which would formally recognise Irish as an official language in Northern Ireland, has been doggedly opposed by the DUP. Does this opposition reflect the opinions of the wider unionist community, or is it merely a political baton being used by the DUP?

Having had the opportunity to speak with Linda Ervine,[1] Irish language development officer in the heart of loyalist East Belfast, and Carál Ní Chuilín,[2] Sinn Féin Minister of Culture, Arts & Leisure, I have more insight into the opinions regarding minority languages and the enactment of an Irish Language Act from both a unionist and nationalist perspective.

Mrs Ervine, wife of former PUP leader Brian Ervine, established ‘Turas’, the Irish language project in East Belfast, with the aim of depoliticising the language and to give it back to the people, without enforcing it upon them. When speaking as regards the de-politicisation of the language, Linda proposed that Irish, Scots-Gaelic and Ulster-Scots are presented together, revealing their historical, cultural and linguistic ties. “Opportunities for people to engage with the music, language and culture of both Gaelic and Scots jointly”, she said, “will encourage the realisation that people of Northern Ireland are culturally rich, which should be embraced, rather than separated into narrow divisive boxes.” The stance taken by the Alliance Party in relation to legislation is to introduce a ‘Minority Languages Act’ of sorts, which would be less contentious than an Irish Language Act though offer equal protection. Carál contends, however, that this is what currently exists in practice and it fails to adequately reflect what was intended in both the Good Friday and St Andrew’s Agreements. Irish does not yet possess an official status in NI and so equality remains an issue with many services not yet available.

It was once said that “every word of Irish spoken is like another bullet being fired in the struggle for Irish freedom,” and with this sentiment, it is easy to understand how members of the unionist/loyalist communities dismiss the language as republican. However, examples of the language are laced throughout Protestant culture: the unionist Ulster Convention of 1892 featured the slogan ‘Erin-go-Bragh’, the Anglicisation of the Irish phrase, ‘Éireann go Brách’, used to express allegiance to Ireland, revealing the languages roots lie much deeper than recent republicanism. Linda, angered by the declaration of George Chittick, the Orange Order’s Belfast County Grand Master, that unionists should not speak Irish, considered it a “defeatist” view of unionism to conclude that it cannot tolerate the Irish language. Irish language, just like Scots Gaelic, contributes to the cultural diversity that makes Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom unique.

Linda like Carál, disgusted by the “immature” and “ignorant” behaviour of Gregory Campbell, emphasised the importance of language legislation in order to protect minority languages by encouraging their growth and development. The enactment of an Irish Language Act would bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK and Ireland, with Wales, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland all having adopted domestic legislation to protect their respective indigenous languages.

The East Belfast Mission (EBM) is currently funded by Foras na Gaeilge, the body responsible for the promotion of the Irish language throughout the whole island of Ireland, established in the wake of the GFA. In order to encourage further growth of the Irish language in East Belfast and the wider Protestant community, the EBM requires further funding. Appropriate legislation would likely encourage more adequate funding for the language in Northern Ireland which would in turn, allow for the dissemination of greater information regarding Gaelic culture in Protestant communities.

Both Linda and Carál firmly believe that Irish should not be compulsory in schools, though should be made available in all schools should students wish to learn the 23rd official language of the EU. Carál believes that the schooling system in fact “contributed to the depression of the language, particularly in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s.” While it is necessary to support people in their learning, making the language compulsory in schools could ultimately have a negative impact on students and in turn a negative effect on the enjoyment of the language. Accessibility of education through the medium of Irish will allow those who attend naíscoil, bunscoil and meánscoil (Irish based pre, primary and secondary schools) to continue Irish-based education in University, making their early education considerably more worthwhile.

Each word of Irish spoken must not be promoted as a bullet towards achieving Irish freedom, but rather, “part of our shared culture, heritage and identity”, that when embraced can encourage both communities in Northern Ireland to move forward together. The Catalan language-immersion, for instance, used in the Catalan education system has been crucial to holding together a society that appeared under threat. International best practice has shown that jurisdictions which have a minority language must implement adequate legislation. Northern Ireland must address this in the context of the Irish Language to further develop the peace process and to achieve the goals set out in the GFA. “Beatha teanga í a labhairt”, “it’s the life of a language to speak it”, and this should not be undermined by conflicting political agendas but “is maith an scéalaí an aimsir”, “only time will tell.”

[1] Interview with Linda Ervine, Irish Language Development Officer, East Belfast Mission (Belfast, 31 March 2015)

[2] Interview with Carál Ní Chuilín, Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Sinn Fein (Stormont, 21 April 2015)

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