Any of your readers who watched the Spotlight programme War of Words (16/12/14), which was to deal with the Irish language, would have gathered little from it other apart from the programme’s spin that the Irish language is a party-political issue associated primarily with Sinn Féin. As someone who was educated through the medium of Irish, is raising my kids through Irish and who has worked within the Irish language community for over ten years, I can assure you that this is simply not the case.
For many of us, the Irish language is a way of life and it is our vision to encourage the use of the language in a spirit of inclusivity; as a means of connecting with a rich and vibrant heritage; and fostering tolerance of and openness to other languages and cultures. Many thousands marched through Belfast in April of this year calling for legislation to protect our language. This was, by definition, a political act.
It is our view that an Irish Language Act will set parameters within which our language and language speakers of all traditions will be respected and protected. Those who call for the de-politicisation of the language including, it appears, the BBC, are effectively seeking to neuter the prospect of delivering progress and equality for Irish speakers since it is politicians who will have to agree an Irish Language Act and therefore it is a political issue for all parties and not just one. I made this point very clearly to Jennifer O’Leary in an interview recorded but not used in the programme.
The question must be asked, therefore, why did the producers of this programme go out of their way to associate the language with only one political party? Has the fact that the BBC frequently discriminates against Irish speakers left them scrambling for excuses, in light of increased demands from the Irish language community for equitable treatment in the North? If they can successfully embed the myth that the Irish language is promoted by Sinn Féin as a means of alienating Unionists then some politicians will have the perfect excuse to deny the Irish speaking community from all parts of the North measures to allow them to use the language.
The lack of Irish-language support, development, public profile and language rights are real political issues. Politicians have a duty to their electorate to seek progress on a range of language issues and both Sinn Féin and SDLP share most of the objectives in relation to the development of the Irish language, representing large sections of their electorate.
Members of the SPLP attended the community organised Slógadh at Stormont, which was highlighted in the show in the most spurious manner, but the BBC decided to focus their attention on the Sinn Féin representatives. The producers were made aware of this on the day and also of the fact that the Green Party had sent support to our campaign, although again, this was ignored on the programme as this didn’t suit the narrative of the programme. Of course, we are also looking for the support of all other parties in the North for the language, and an invitation to attend was extended to every MLA in our power-sharing assembly.
There is a deep sense of frustration in our community that commitments made regarding the Irish Language Act at St Andrews have not been honoured by all parties to the agreement and furthermore that the British and Irish governments have failed as guardians of the agreement to ensure that legislation is implemented. It is an indictment on the current administration that this is the only region on these islands that does not have legislation to protect the indigenous language, An Ghaeilge, one of the oldest and richest languages in Europe.
Despite the perpetuation of cynical attitudes regarding the language by the makers of Spotlight, our community will continue to organise and lobby all politicians and parties to ensure that statutory rights for Irish speakers are enshrined in legislation.
Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin
Rúnaí, An Feachtas Dearg