By Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin.

On November 30 2016, a group of Irish language activists came together in the Cultúrlann on the Falls Road in west Belfast under the umbrella of ‘An Tionól Dearg’ (The Red Assembly) with the aim of reinvigorating the campaign for rights for Irish speakers.

The last major public demonstration by the Irish speaking community in the north, in April 2014, had contributed to the important, yet localised, victories in relation to Irish medium education but the longstanding demand for an Irish Language Act remained unresolved and was increasingly falling off the political Richter scale.

Furthermore, the Assembly elections in May 2016 had seen a DUP education minister installed for the first time since power-sharing was established, who immediately began matching pre-election threat with regressive deed by making a series of calculated and deliberate attacks against the Irish-medium school community.

There was, of course, nothing particularly new in that regard, or the many other childish and well-reported attacks on our community, from the renaming of boats to “curry my yoghurt”, but the frustration of the previous six months boiled over when the draft Programme for Government, produced by the Executive in October 2016, made little to no mention of the language generally, never mind an act or a strategy which had been promised as part of the 2006 international St Andrews Agreement.

In March 2016, proposals brought forward by then Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Carál Ní Chuilin, were rejected by the Executive and it appeared those efforts had reached a dead-end. Simultaneously, the highly politicised Towards Building United Communities strategy aimed at fostering ‘Good Relations’ between both main traditions – but which relegated the Irish Language as a ‘single identity issue’ and therefore not worthy of funding or recognition, never mind rights – was increasingly becoming mainstreamed into every element of local government administration.

It was in this context that more than 50 activists from across Ireland came together, determined not to let the issue of the Irish Language Act slip entirely from public and political consciousness.

Laying the groundwork

Drawing from the network of activists that had organised the ‘Lá Dearg’ in 2014 and rooted in the Irish-speaking communities, or the “earthworks and fortifications” as Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci described them, there was an overwhelming sense of urgency and positivity, in spite of our frustrations and justifiable anger – and perhaps energised by them.

In the weeks that followed, important groundwork was done on agreeing on an approach, along with short and long-term aims. This cohort of activists was rebranded as ‘An Dream Dearg’ and adapted a new logo (white-circle, red-background, now synonymous with the campaign).

It is really important, from a campaigning perspective, that we allowed ourselves the space and time to agree on these fundamentals and for us to stress that the stand-out events of 2017/18, where Irish language activists swept across the northern political landscape, did not come out of nowhere. 

Beyond our control and to our immeasurable benefit, then Minister for Communities Paul Givan decided to cut a means-tested, small bursary scheme for disadvantaged young people who wanted to attend Gaeltacht courses but would not ordinarily be able to afford it.

This decision – taken at a time of increasing tension in the Executive as a result of the now famous RHI scheme, which implicated the DUP in the squandering of £500 million of public money – was the ‘organic political crisis’ we were waiting for that propelled our cause in the political spotlight. Had we not, however, been organised prior to Givan’s now famous Líofa-cut, which failed to fulfil the most basic and statutory equality assessments, the campaign for an Irish Language Act could not have grown to be as strong as it was, in as short a time as it did. 

DUP discrimination fuels movement

It is worth stressing that the discriminatory decision taken by Givan was by no means unique or rare but rather followed a trend whereby DUP ministers would continuously take pop-shots at the Irish language, even if it meant targeting the most marginalised in our society, particularly at times of inceased oversight on the DUP, such as before elections or during crises.

With the attack on Líofa, however, coming as it did as disturbing details of the RHI fund were becoming public, the consciousness of the broader community was pricked and more and more people came to agree with the analysis that strong legislation was needed to insulate Irish speakers against outrageous abuses of power.

It is worth stressing at this stage that it was the constant sneering, ridiculing and discrimination faced by the Irish-speaking community by the DUP in particular, that kept the issue of the Irish Language Act in particular, and the status of the language in society more generally, in the public eye.

They, more than any other player, helped (conversely, it must be added) keep this issue alive. It is ironic in the extreme that it is political unionism’s obsession with the Irish language which has, more than anything else, undone the deliberate, politically motivated attempts at creating cultural consensus and conformity through the Towards Building United Communities and Good Relations initiatives, which afforded no space to it!

But in early 2017 there was no certainty to this. While the pressure brought by the Irish-speaking community eventually contributed to the collapse of Stormont, with the language being referenced by Martin McGuinness in his resignation letter which precipitated this collapse, originally there was a feeling that this would be short-term.

With every month that passed during 2017, however, whatever optimism existed that a quick deal could be reached dissipated and was replaced by a grudging acceptance that this was a crisis unlike that of late 2015, which led to the Fresh Start Agreement.

Commentators and pundits alike talked of a “fundamental shift” in politics, driven partly by macro political issues like Brexit and coalitions in Westminster, alongside the re-emergence of protest and community-led campaigns on the streets.

Undoubtedly the biggest, most consistent and most vocal of these campaigns was that of an Dream Dearg for an Irish Language Act. An issue which had spent the previous three years on the margins and was rapidly falling off the political Richter scale was undoubtedly the main political issue of 2017. It was also the issue upon which the last attempt at securing a deal collapsed in February of 2018, with the journalist Eamonn Mallie sharing the draft agreement that was never (according to the DUP) agreed upon!

Barometer for measuring exclusion

In 2019, the question of the Irish Language Act remains the barometer by which large swathes of society here are using to assess how sincere the DUP and indeed the British government are about building the shared future we have heard so much about in the last 10 years.

Given the inability of the DUP to agree to an incredibly weak language act as proposed in February 2018, (which would have been widely rejected by the Irish speaking community), you don’t have to be a cynic to question their sincerity.

Our campaign has helped lay bare the sectarian nature of political unionism’s opposition to the Irish language and simultaneously, at a deeper level, caused more and more people to begin to look beyond Stormont. If the DUP can’t agree on something as small as this in spite of the international commitments made and clear public support, people ask, what hope do we have for the brighter future we have heard so much about but seen so little of?

Behind all the pseudo-progressive rhetoric there is exclusion: what does a ‘brighter future’ mean when Irish schools are denied any specific Special Educational Needs provision and have to overcome enormous hurdles just to get off the ground? What do ‘shared spaces’ mean when Irish is banned from public signage? And what does ‘respect’ mean when our language and community are constantly sneered at and ridiculed by the largest party in the state?

Our campaign has irrevocably changed the political landscape. The attempts by the DUP and others hostile to language rights to reduce it to nothing more than a ‘Sinn Féin red line’ ignores the reality that those parties (Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance, the Green Party, People Before Profit, and a majority of MLAs) calling for an Irish Language Act did so as a result of a powerful organic campaign.

Likewise, Arlene Foster’s dehumanisation and delegitimisation of the activists, citizens and young people, by dismissing us ‘political activists’, as she did in April 2017, will not discourage people from fighting for their rights.

The fact remains that any minority community engaged in a struggle for rights and recognition are quite consciously involved in ‘political activism’. This doesn’t diminish or undermine them or their campaign.

As many language communities across Europe and throughout the world will testify, it is the denial and disavowal of rights which is controversial and ‘political’ and not the assertion of those rights. The right and opportunity to “learn and use” your native language, according to internationally acclaimed language expert Fernand de Varennes, “flows from a fundamental right and cannot to be considered as a special concession or privileged treatment”.

Adam Ramsay summed it up best when he stated: “Of course the Irish language is political: it’s always political for marginalised minorities to express themselves. It’s always political to defend diversity in the face of those who demand a monochrome society.”

Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin is advocacy manager for Conradh na Gaeilge. Follow Ciarán on Twitter @crogallmorglas and follow An Dream Dearg @dreamdearg.

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